Last March 20-22, the Ateneo Special Education Society (SPEED) held A Special Café, which is the first of its kind for the organization. If one happened to walk by Colayco Pavilion and caught sight of the vibrant green S-P-E-E-D letters, written chalk-board menu, cookie-and cup-shaped decor, this was where the magic was happening!
Seeing Colayco Pavilion, a familiar place commonly used by organizations for their respective events or Tambay Weeks, dressed up in an al fresco type of way really added to the café ambiance. There were long and circular tables jazzed up with white and green table cloths, mason jars with paper flowers as centerpieces, a soft breeze billowing from the ceiling fans, and an acoustic playlist crooning over the entire venue. It was totally transformed into an intimate space one could relax and unwind in–whether to study for an upcoming test or to bond with friends–all the while getting their regular caffeine fix and pastries in the comfort of school. But this alone was not why SPEED had created such an event.
In fact, it may have surprised the average passerby that the PWSNs clad in green aprons and button pins were the ones taking orders and delivering it to the customers. This was why the project was set up in the first place, as it hit right at the heart of the organization’s advocacy to promote a more inclusive spaces for PWSNs. Often, there is the stigma attached to PWSNs that causes some people to fear what they do not understand. The hardworking Speple (SPEED members) composed of the project heads and the various core committees aimed for this project to bridge the gap by having an opportunity for interaction between the PWSNs and the Ateneo community.
The seed of inspiration came from the existing business model of Puzzle Café. The logo is aptly symbolized by a jigsaw piece, the international symbol for autism. Not to be confused with Puzzles, the board game restaurant, Puzzle Café is distinct in its own right as the members of its staff are diagnosed Autism, Down Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy, and have trained as either waiters or kitchen assistants. The concept for the restaurant arose from the Canoy family’s initiative to set-up a place where their son and brother, Jose, who has been diagnosed with Autism, could be given the chance to work.
As the restaurant began to expand, the Canoy family began to receive calls from schools and parents of other PWSNs who wanted to join, too. It was then that they realized that what initially started as a simple café, became one rooted in an even greater advocacy. It is where persons with special needs can be themselves openly and without judgment. Here, they feel safe knowing that it is especially for them; it is a space where they can showcase their abilities and serve people who view their conditions at a more positive light. Opportunities to change the way people with special needs are perceived by the general public, as well as to highlight their capabilities are what Puzzle Café aspires for.
It’s no wonder why SPEED sought the opportunity to embark on a dynamic partnership with the help and support of one of Puzzle Café’s founders, Ms. Ysabella Canoy. Throughout the three days of its run, the PWSNs, who are regular employees from Puzzle Café, were present. Anna, a twenty-two year old PWSN employee, said her favorite menu item was the coffee because “customers order that most of the times.” On the other hand, Roby, eighteen years old, who works part-time at Puzzle Café and studies at Independent Living Learning Center, enjoyed meeting new people the most. He savored the chocolate cupcake he was given because it is not a regular part of his diet due to his ADHD. Likewise, Tonio and Clariz also enjoyed interacting with the customers by taking their orders and serving it to them. Getting to play board games with those who dropped by was also very memorable for the PWSNs.
One of SPEED’s colors is green, symbolizing growth, and this was clearly embodied in the aesthetic and physical decorations present at the venue. But more than that, growth actualized for the PWSNs, the hardworking Speple who put it all together, and the Ateneo community who were witnesses to this extraordinary project. It has created small ripples of change towards those whose perceptions of PWSNs were varied. At the same time, the PWSNs present were able to encounter new people, whom they were able to have meaningful conversations with. Ask anyone present at the event and they’ll tell you that whatever they ordered–be it coffee, chocolate cupcakes, mocha cake slices, brownies, or sugar cookies–were made even more special by the rationale behind this project. Not only were they served by PWSNs; they symbolize the capacity of the special needs sector to lead fuller lives and become productive members of our society. Hopefully this will only be the beginning of more A Special Cafés in the future.
Written by Leandra Miller, 3 BS Management