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Big plans for café that employs and trains people with intellectual disabilities


From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Big plans for café that employs and trains people with intellectual disabilities Big plans for café that employs and trains people with intellectual disabilities

Walk down any street in Galway and you couldn’t be blamed for losing track of all the different cafés that seem to materialise from thin air.

It seems every vacant building is being transformed overnight into a branch of one of the three or four different chains that dominate the market.

Despite this, one establishment has stood the test of time while also giving people with intellectual disabilities employment opportunities.

Café Link is a supported employment café situated next to the Shantalla Clinic in Newcastle. The recently renovated café currently employs seven staff members with intellectual disabilities and is in its 18th year of operation.  As soon as you step inside, you are greeted with a warm welcome from its staff and can sample a wide selection of fresh scones, pastries and sandwiches.

Staff member Padraig McGagh in the cafe.

The close-knit team has received major boosts recently, including receiving a €100,000 funding package from the non-profit organisation, Rethink Ireland, along with the reopening of its Newcastle café after a major upgrade. Shane Tuohy, Manager of Link Galway CLG, says they’ve come a long way since the first café opened in 1990 – on the other side of town.

“The first Link Café was actually set up in 1990 in the Sandy Road location and was staffed by catering staff as opposed to social care staff. It kept growing from there and in 2004 our Newcastle café opened. So, I suppose that was the point that they began working with the HSE.”

Link receives funding from the HSE as well as charitable donations, while the €100,000 granted by Rethink Ireland will allow the group to expand into different avenues, such as providing official QQI recognised training courses at its Sandy Road location, which now operates solely as a training centre.

“We initially applied for a €50,000 grant and we were awarded €100,000, because they believe in what we’re doing. It’s definitely the way forward, because right now we’re only offering unaccredited training.

“We’re offering in-house certificates and stuff like that. While it is still good training, QQI certification is the best way to organically move people in and out.”

Link operates like a well-oiled machine, with each team having their own station, working together to serve the customer.

“Everyone has their own job where we’re going off people’s strengths,” says Shane. “Most of the people with intellectual disabilities work here work 15 hours a week. The way it works is that, for example, on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we have the same girl on the coffee machine and she would recognise regular customers when they’re walking the door. She’ll have their coffees ready for them when we get busier during the day.”

While the menu may be a bit smaller than in other places, it’s constantly being expanded and improved while staff continue to master new equipment.

“For the first time ever, we have an oven on site. I know it sounds funny, but we can actually bake stuff here now for the first time and we’re preparing food,” Shane explains. “We’re still on a reduced menu while our staff are training up. But there’ll be more coming over the next six months, there’ll be more and more stuff going on to the menu. The staff have been amazing so far and they are learning their new roles very well.”

Fianna Fáil TD for Galway East Anne Rabbitte has been a long-time advocate for the café and has worked with Link Galway to secure the extra funding. She believes the additional funding will further help those with disabilities achieve equal opportunities for employment.

The entrance to Café Link.

“With this funding being used to open the bakery and expand their offering, as well as seeking to provide accreditation for service users, it’ll see the café grow from strength to strength,” she says. “I think this will give people with disabilities and their families hope that there are other real options out there and they can achieve an equal opportunity when it comes to employment and upskilling.”

Minister Rabbitte hopes the work of Link Galway will encourage people in other places to start similar initiatives.

“I hope this funding will help Café Link show that their model of inclusion and support not only works, but could be a blueprint for other parts of the country. Being a Minister in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, one of my focuses has been on how disability isn’t just a ‘health’ issue but more about equality, and the work Café Link does typifies that.”

So, next time you find yourself peckish and in search of a cuppa and a snack, maybe it’s time to try somewhere different, somewhere that’s making a real effort to improve the lives of people who are intellectually disabled – and that has excellent food.

(Main photo by Joe O’Shaughnessy: Manager Shane Tuohy, with staff members Niamh Daly, Cait Mulkerrins and Marian Kelly in Café Link).

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