Connexions Cafe: Tamworth cafe run by exceptional people with disabilities

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“Well what do you like best about working at the cafe?”

“I don’t know.”

This was going to be harder than I thought.

Nestled between two unremarkable homes on Johnston Street is Connexions Cafe, inside, exceptional people deliver service that’s far from average.

They’re exceptional because they’re different, and they are different because every single person who works here lives with a disability.

Going to Connexions Cafe is a lesson in patience, sitting with Sharon Farnhill I quickly realised the hour I set aside for an interview might have been a little ambitious.

Sharon has worked at the cafe for six months, she has a Jack Russell called Jacko and lives with an intellectual disability and undiagnosed but suspected symptoms of early onset dementia.

Every morning she catches the bus from Quirindi to Tamworth for work and sometimes she can’t remember what she had for lunch.

But you couldn’t wipe the smile off her face if you tried.

Cafe supervisor Wendy Capararo has more than 40 years experience in the industry, but it’s the type of person she is that allows her to do this line of work.

“You have to be with the clients all the time, you have to make sure that everything they do, you’re with them, watching them,” she said.

“Tuesday morning for instance I asked a client if they knew how to whip cream, the client said yes, next thing I turn around and the cream is from ceiling to floor, she’s covered in cream - oh my goodness I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

“She said, ‘Accidents happen’, I said, ‘Yes they do’.”

The staff are light-hearted and funny and they take pride in their work.

Some have intellectual disabilities, others physical - one of the clients is vision impaired and created a braille menu himself.

It’s a foreign language to me, but for people who are blind it opens a door that’s closed to them in many other situations, the benefit of choice.

The decision to work at a cafe with people with disabilities wasn’t just a random choice for Ms Capararo.

Her grandson Max passed away at age nine, he was born with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic condition that affects the lungs and digestive system.

There is no cure.

“My grandson passed away two years ago and that’s when I made the change - I knew I needed to do something different,” Ms Capararo said.

“He was always sick, he couldn’t run, couldn’t play sports, as soon as you’d knock him he would be in hospital and it’s the same with these guys.

“With Max you had to be a little bit more here and there, not follow that direct line, the same with these guys - I just love working here, it gives me satisfaction.

“I did try to leave at one stage and go back to The Coffee Club but I couldn’t do it.”

The cafe serves a lot of older customers, the extended wait time suits them perfectly because they can sit for as long as they like without anyone moving them on.

Everything is made from scratch, those who don’t feel up to working on the coffee machine or using the deep fryer wield dishcloths and mops like soldiers.

Eliza Simpson is 22, she’s excelled to the point where she’s ready to look for work in what she refers to as the ‘mainstream’.

After three years she knows how to cook, clean, handle customer service, money and make a piping hot cappuccino.

Eliza was born with an intellectual disability that makes it difficult for her to read and write, but she’s not too bothered.

“It’s not as bad as what other people might think,” she said.

“Other people think that I can’t do anything and I’m not doing a really good job at it, I don’t care what other people think as long as I’m doing the best job I can and don’t put negative thoughts into my head, I just think positive.

“All I can say is that it doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not, you have to give it a go.”

At this point Gareth Gardner, The Leader’s photographer has disappeared.

Debbie Melhuish, one of the clients, wanted him to take her photograph.

Conveniently he’s told the staff he needed a cappuccino for the photoshoot, so we sit and drink our coffees, while Sharon brings over freshly made M&M cookies.

I start talking to Debbie, one of the lenses on her glasses is wrapped in brown tape because she suffers from double vision.

Two years ago a rush to the hospital revealed a brain tumour, aneurysm and blood clot in her brain all at once.

“I was scared, it was a nightmare - I’ve been walking around with it for five years and they didn’t know, the aneurysm grew and I didn’t know it was there,” she said.

“I kept blacking out, things started getting blurry, and then one day a friend helped me because I felt funny, slurpy - she called the ambulance and they took me to hospital, the next day they sent me to John Hunter Hospital where they found it all in one hit.”

She leans over and gives supervisor Wendy a hug, “Wendy helped me to feel not afraid to try things,” she said.

“Here it’s not so demanding, you don’t get yelled at, insulted, you get given a chance.

“It’s made me feel more confident, I can do it, there’s no such word as you cannot do it.”

And there’s one thing that’s clear, all of the clients love working with supervisor Wendy Capararo.

She’s patient, kind, and helps each of them through their interviews whenever they get stuck.

“We’re more lenient, more compassionate,” Ms Capararo said.

“Here there is more of a connection.”

Article by the Northern Daily Leader, 5 August 2018. 

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About Challenge Community Services

60 years ago we were a small band of parents and friends seeking support services for our children with disabilities. Today, Challenge has grown to be one of the largest community support services in New South Wales. We provide support to over 2500 people from Albury to Lismore, Sydney, Dubbo, Tamworth and beyond. With over 600 staff, 85 of which have a disability, we strive to comply with and exceed all standards required under State and Federal Acts.
In the spirit of Reconciliation, Challenge Community Services acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this country, and their connection to land, water and community. We pay our respect to them, their cultures and customs, and to Elders both past and present.
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