A Tyneside charity has joined forces with top chef Kenny Atkinson to call on businesses to create jobs for people with disabilities.
#EmpowerAndEmploy has been launched by Smile For Life Children’s Charity, backed by patron and owner of Newcastle’s only Michelin-starred restaurant Kenny Atkinson, to raise awareness of how disabled people can be valuable in the workplace.
And to prove just that – two autistic students from the charity’s Café Beam were invited into the busy kitchen at House of Tides to gain valuable skills, build confidence and help with the lunchtime rush.
Speaking about his experience, Michael Francis said: “I was a bit nervous, the restaurant has a great reputation and I didn’t want to let Kenny down. I am feeling more confident now. I was really honoured to be invited here, getting the chance to be in a proper kitchen and to be working during the lunch service.”
The 27-year-old, who has been doing a work placement with Café Beam, on Ashburton Road in Gosforth, for 16 months, added: “I feel more optimistic about my future now, like I can achieve anything.”
Cameron Pusey, shared this sentiment. He said: “It means a lot to me to be here because I am currently working on my entry level Hospitality and Catering qualification, so getting the chance to be in a kitchen like this is good.
“I have learned a lot. I have been rolling duck into miniature patties, cracking hazelnuts, I have been enjoying it quite well.”
The 16-year-old added: “I was so nervous about coming today. Being here my confidence has grown. I will get quite a lot of skills from being in a restaurant like this. Working with Kenny is a massive honour.”
The #EmpowerAndEmploy campaign was the brainchild of Smile For Life chief exec Paula Gascoigne, launched during Autism Awareness Week (March 26 – April 2), and comes on the back of some shocking employment statistics.
Currently just 23.9% of people of working age with a learning difficulty are in employment nationally, while the North East has the second-lowest employment rate for disabled people out of all regions of the UK.
Paula and Kenny hope to improve understanding of disabilities and show that being disabled doesn’t mean you cannot excel in employment if you are given the right opportunity.
Kenny said: “I wanted to get the lads into my kitchen to build their confidence and skills for their future and to show other businesses that people with disabilities can be a great benefit.
“I had someone working here who was autistic, he was here for three years and he was a huge, important part of the team.
“Today shows just what these young people can do in day to day life. I think with children with autism, people can tend to look at the negatives too much. But if you look deeper than that, they’ve all got skills and they’ve all got something they can excel in.”
Speaking about the campaign he added: “The #EmpowerAndEmploy campaign makes perfect sense – if it gets more people out of unemployment it will only benefit society.
“It’s all about giving individuals an opportunity to build confidence, build friends and gain a sense of purpose and normality as well.”
Paula said: “It has been an incredible opportunity for some of our students to come and work in a Michelin-starred restaurant, they have such good skills and personality. This has taken such a lot of courage for them to do this – they have walked through the door and been given an apron and just got stuck in!
“We launched #EmpowerAndEmploy because we have seen over the past four years the value that young people with disabilities can have in the workplace.”
Paula hopes this week is just the beginning for the campaign. She added: “This campaign is in line with the Government’s pledge to get one million disabled people into work over the next 10 years, so this is a real boost to kick that off across the region.
“We have fantastic, supportive businesses here in the North East – so come on and get behind these amazing young people who just need the chance to shine.”