It is one thing to recognize that people with special needs are made in the image of God and another thing to help them function in society and in God’s kingdom. This article gives us insight into how that can be done through running a business that both employs and otherwise supports the needs of people with special needs and provides an opportunity to invest the gospel in their lives.
Joyous is an experienced secondary school teacher who has served in Sunday school ministry for more than three decades. Hopeful has extensive work experience in IT and served in church in the areas of discipling and training for a good number of years.
MRT Café and Education Ministry for People with Special Needs
By Joyous and Hopeful
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 no. 2 (May-Aug 2020): 26-28
In East Asia, there is a great need to educate the general public about accepting people with special needs. The authorities in our city have labelled this group “disabled”. The society at large is not ready to embrace them. It is nearly impossible for this group of people to find jobs here as employers are unwilling to hire them even for simple jobs like packing and cleaning in shops. Many family members feel ashamed to bring them out to interact with others. The public schools for people with special needs have limited vacancies and resources to educate and train these students. As a result, a huge majority have never acquired the basic life skills to take care of themselves and there is little hope for them to improve the quality of their lives. Many remain at home where they continue to be a burden on their families.
Who can help this group of people and give them hope in life? Who is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to this neglected and unreached people? Under the strong conviction of the Holy Spirit, we began to see with increasing clarity that we are called to serve them in this foreign land. We are indeed thankful and joyful to receive God’s clear direction to set up an employment platform and a learning support centre for people with special needs. As we look back, we realise God had prepared us for this ministry in our home church where we started a special needs Sunday School seven years ago. It was only after serving at home for five years that we embarked on this mission journey.
Our café is a take-away eatery serving toast, cream puffs, ice cream, fruit juice, and other beverages. It is situated in the shopping area in the city centre, on the second storey of a building with many restaurants. It occupies 32 square meters and has a small seating capacity. During weekends and public holidays, the place is crowded with diners. This business is ideal as the start-up costs were not too high and the monthly rent was manageable. The potential for making the business sustainable looked promising, as footfall in the area is quite good. After six months in business, we started to break even, and are making a small profit today. This business style is also ideal because the skills required by our workers with special needs are not too complex.
The café family
In the first six months of running the business, we witnessed to twenty-three workers, some of whom were university students. Some of these heard the name of Jesus for the first time in their lives and quickly understood why we started this business. They were touched by the love we showed and developed a willingness to work alongside others with special needs. Currently, we have a steady work force of five workers. Two of them are mentally challenged and one is physically disabled. One worker is the mother of a mentally-challenged worker.
Our lives, the message
The lives of these workers with special needs changed drastically after working in the café. They received their very first pay checks in their lives and have become able to support themselves financially. As we work and live with them like a close-knit family, we are able to show Christ in us and send a strong message to them. Our lives are the message. Many times they asked about our faith and were keen to know about Jesus and the stories from the Bible. Discussing the Bible became part of the daily routine in the shop. One of our male physically-challenged employees was baptized in December 2019. Two other workers have since accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. Whenever we received delivery orders, our workers acknowledged that it is God who supplied and thanked the Lord for giving us business. We praise God for giving us a safe platform to share his love freely so that our workers are able to meet Jesus. Lives are indeed changed and improved here, as our workers not only earn money, they also find salvation, joy, confidence, purpose, and direction in their lives.
So far, all of our workers have been able to meet every order independently as they are simple to fill. If there is a need to expand the ministry in the future to benefit more people with special needs, our current workers are confident that they can train other workers in the new outlets. Training people who would like to run similar businesses is also a priority. To date, we have provided learning experiences for four people from two countries. Each of them spent one to two months in our food outlet, learning all the baking skills needed as well as the know-how to run a business in a foreign country. This training included working with regular workers and those with special needs. It also gave them a chance to experience life in this city and to interact with a like-minded community. After being equipped, they have had ample time to determine whether this is a calling that they would like to follow. We are glad we have helped prepare them for this kind of ministry and hope that they will come on board. The ground is ready for multiplication and we are waiting for more support for this kingdom business.
As both of us were previously not from the food industry and the business world, we learnt many lessons in this new adventure. Though working in the café is both simple and enjoyable, we experienced a high turnover of twenty-three workers during our first six months of business. It is difficult to hold onto workers here as turnover is high due to family reasons and study commitments. It was only when we started hiring workers with special needs and their family members that our workforce stabilised. Hiring high-functioning special needs workers is manageable. Most of them took about two months to gain independence. Although they may make little mistakes every now and then, it was not too much trouble to rectify them. We work in the shop like a family working together. Workers joyfully come to work every day.
Right products for the customers at the right location
A second lesson that we learned was that although location is very important for retail businesses, launching suitable products is equally or perhaps more important for the success of a business. As our outlet is in the midst of established restaurants, a take-away counter serving toast may not be the most ideal here. The customers are less inclined to look for bread when they are surrounded by a great assortment of restaurants. Moreover, bread is not the staple food here. We noticed that people coming from bigger metropolitan cities are more interested in bread. They found our toast to be very good and often suggested that we start a similar business in their cities. Even though our products are healthier than most food found in this city, as they are less oily, spicy, and salty, people here are not ready to buy the idea of eating healthily. However, as good stewards, we insisted on using little oil and no food colouring, preservatives, or other additives designed to enhance flavour. Healthier corn oil and fresh fruits are used to prepare all our products, hence we have gained some loyal, returning customers. Most of our income comes from the sale of fruit juice. Small items like eggettes seem to sell better than toast too. To survive in this highly competitive market, we must be flexible, agile, and responsive to our customers while ensuring that we provide healthy, quality products.
Those who desire to open a take-away food retail business will find that it will be better if the outlet is located at the street level. The location of a delivery-only business can be more flexible as long as the shop is close to a high-density residential or office area. In addition, selling staple food items like rice, fried rice, or rice noodles is more likely to garner high business volume.
Craft activity at the learning center.
Special needs learning support centre
There are at least 10,000 people with special needs in this city but there are only three public schools available for them. These schools only take in very high-functioning children, making it impossible for less-abled children to enter the special needs schools here. As a result, many of these people receive no professional intervention and education. In addition, the schools here do not take in students who are eighteen years old and above. We saw a great need to set up an early intervention centre to help young kids as well as provide training and equipping in vocational and life skills for those who are eighteen years old and above. A private learning centre for people with special needs was established in the last quarter of 2019 to meet these needs.
Small setup for easy multiplication
The learning centre occupies an area of 95 square meters and can take in a maximum of fifteen students at any one time. We intended it to be a small centre so that we would not be too burdened financially and would not attract unnecessary attention. If there is a need to expand, we could also easily multiply with another small setup. One special needs educator and two occupational therapists who share our vision work at the centre. Recently, we employed a local lady part-time to assist the teachers.
Professional consultancy with God’s love
The centre is equipped with many teaching aids suitable for cognitive development and equipment for sensory integration. There is also a kitchen and laundry area for imparting life skills. In the future, we hope to prepare some of these students to enter the work force. Our teachers conduct therapy sessions through sand play and music. On top of these, we provide assessment services and other activities like roller blading courses to enhance learning support to the students. We are different from the other three special needs schools currently available in the city. Our teachers have many years of professional experience and teach with abundant love. Parents testified that their kids demonstrated significant positive change after attending a few lessons with our teachers. Students made remarkable improvement in areas like concentration, speech, communication, and behaviour. We praise God for bringing students to our centre. Although we have been in business for only three months, we are already facing a shortage of manpower. It is our desire to appeal for physiotherapists and speech therapists to join us in this meaningful ministry. We intend to provide a counselling service for the parents of our students if we can get qualified counsellors to join our team. We can then interact more with the parents and provide holistic support for these families.
Building sustainability and meeting needs
Many single-income families cannot afford to pay school fees for special needs education. One school in a nearby town is charging a sizeable fee for a service that is similar to the one we provide. But even though we capped our school fees at about one-fifth of the other school in order make it possible for more students to attend, many find it to be a heavy burden. Supporting such families financially has become a challenge for us. As this is operated using a business model, we need to justify our existence by making enough profit to be viable.
A people-focused model for business has a bright future in many countries. This is especially true as wealth in the country increases and it becomes more developed. Our business ventures focusing on people with special needs provide them with a livelihood and offer appropriate intervention for them and their families so that they receive hope. We are proud to send a strong message to potential employers that many people with special needs are capable of working and they should not be deprived of job opportunities. While we have explored the possibility of working with local bodies to operate these two businesses, they are not yet ready to take on this task. This will not stop us from empowering people where we live by transferring our know-how, vision, and mission. One day, when the time is right, we believe that God will move local people to join in his work here and outside of their nation.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24, italics added).