Honor Oak Park has a new café called My Jamii, a not-for-profit social enterprise which trains young people.
It is named after the Swahili word for community and it serves as the ethos co-founders Sam Fennell and Zoe Slater are trying to establish locally. Excited about her new project, Slater said: “Since we opened, everyone that’s come in here has been so supportive. We’ve been shocked by how busy it’s been!”
Just 22 weeks ago Fennell turned to fellow social worker Slater and suggested to try something different in order to skill up young people for the workplace.
“Neither of us have any café background, neither of us even drank coffee before we started this, neither of us are chefs, but here we are, open!” Slater added.
Three young people between the ages of 17 to 23, who have been referred by schools, youth projects and social workers are currently employed. They work alongside Slater and another barista whilst business partner Fennell is the project’s leader.
“We saw the need for a facility that would help young people through work experience. A project that would give them a fighting chance — and not judge them just because their English and Maths is probably not up to GCSE level,” Slater explained.
The aim of the project is to get the young people involved on an apprenticeship scheme for a qualification in catering. They are paid employees and receive training in food and catering, coffee making and customer service.
Jaycee Mulholland has come straight from a local school, where he found out about the initiative. “I do a bit of everything at the cafe,” he said. “I work with two other young people, one of which I knew before. I do think it will help me in terms of finding jobs in the future.”
Every penny that has gone into setting up the cafe has been donated, whilst Lewisham Council is providing help in the form of a £3000 grant. For Slater, this is about offering jobs that work for young people as much as for the business.
She said: “One of the things we came across was the lack of jobs that would offer this kind of support. A lot of jobs are very business driven and wouldn’t give a new employee the extra attention that we want to give ours. We’re not going to fire them on their first day if they turn up late, we like to sit down and talk to them.”
In practice, the project is bordering on an alternative to a conventional youth group, and is quickly embedding itself as a hub for the local community.
Slater added, “We want to support them and see what they’re interested in, whether that’s the coffee side, the food or they may not be interested in any of this. They may be interested in fashion, for example, so we want to make the connections with local people who offer those opportunities.”
The offering includes local produce such as bread from Cooper’s Bakehouse, who deliver each morning. The fruit and vegetables are collected from New Spitafields market. Slater says that they have big dreams for the project, but to see just one of the young people improving or moving onto a further career would be most rewarding.
“Their literacy and numeracy is low, as is their self-confidence. For them to go out and get a job with someone they don’t know would be amazing,” she added.
The cakes on sale are certainly inviting, but the mission behind the project is even sweeter.
“The change we’ve seen in them in just the first week has been amazing,” said Slater. “For the first couple of days we were all in a bit of a shock because of the opening and didn’t know which way to go. There were tears and upset, but now we see everyone walking out smiling.”