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‘Wonderland of opportunities’ for autistic students as charity reopens Minster cafe

ByPeter Barron

Jun 20, 2022 #Autism, #charity

A CAFÉ in an historic North-East building is to be brought back to life in an “exciting” initiative aimed at giving autistic people employment opportunities and work experience.

The Sunderland Minster café closed during the pandemic but is being reopened thanks to a partnership with the North East Autism Society (NEAS).

Students from Thornhill Park School, an independent specialist school run by NEAS, will be working at the café when it reopens to the public from June 23.

“It’s a really exciting project for many of our older pupils who’ve missed out on work experience due to Covid,” said Nadine Horton, who has been principal at the Sunderland school since September and has a wealth of experience in specialist education.

The students started by choosing a new name for the café – Down The Rabbit Hole – to celebrate Sunderland’s links with Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll is reputed to have drawn inspiration for some of his characters while visiting his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, who lived in the Southwick area of the city.

Thornhill Park students have already helped create the menus for the café. They will also be involved in preparing meals, customer service, and dealing with money.

The menu will include scones, soup, sandwiches, cakes, teas, coffees and soft drinks, with catering taking place in a kitchen area at the Minster. However, NEAS chefs will initially make some of the food items back at the school while the students are building experience and confidence.

The initiative has been passionately driven by Level 4 Teaching Assistant, Andy Marsh, while school cook, Catherine Campbell, has provided expert guidance on food health and safety. Students engaged in the project will work towards a Level 2 food hygiene qualification, and there will be further links to school studies.

It all started when Nadine, who had family connections with the Minster, sent a speculative email, asking about the possibility of the café area being hired.

“We were looking to rebuild our work placement partnerships after the pandemic, and the café at the Minster seemed a good opportunity because it had been closed for a while, and NEAS also has a shop just round the corner,” she explained.

“I got an immediate response, asking me to pop in for a chat and, to my delight, they said ‘OK, let’s do it!’ It’s a win-win situation because the café will be brought back to life as part of the community, and our pupils will get real-life employment opportunities and work experience.

““As part of their individual learning programmes, some pupils will attend the café on a weekly basis. For some, it will support longer-term goals to pursue careers in catering, but for everyone involved, it will help develop interpersonal skills. I’m so passionate about specialist education and the key is to make learning real. This project does exactly that.”

The café will be run as a not-for-profit venture, initially between 10am and 2pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays during term times. However, Nadine hopes to involve NEAS adult services in future, enabling the café to open on more days.

It is also hoped that there will be opportunities for cross-promotion at nearby Sunderland Empire.

“There are so many wonderful opportunities – we can’t wait to start serving our first customers,” declared Nadine.