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A different kind of thinking: the Dublin café that employs neurodiverse staff


Callum McLean and Kieran Dowling at Loaf Cafe in Kilmainham

Loaf Café in Kilmainham is the first outlet outside of Northern Ireland for the Now Group, a social enterprise that facilitates employment for people with intellectual disabilities, autism and neurodiverse conditions.


On a blustery Friday morning, the colourful all-caps signage of Loaf Café shines brightly through its glass storefront in Kilmainham, Dublin. Inside, servers dash back and forth making coffees, plating up sandwiches and taking orders. On the wall behind the till, a selection of beautiful ceramic mugs is displayed for sale. Lower down, on the counter a cardboard sign advertises the Jam Card – an innovation that allows people with learning difficulties and communication barriers to discreetly tell others they need “Just a Minute”.


What the customers may or may not know is that Loaf Café is part of a social enterprise. It helps to facilitate employment for people with intellectual disabilities, autism and neurodiverse conditions. The Dublin business opened its doors last year, following the success of other Loaf Cafés in Northern Ireland. The Now Group, an organisation which runs the cafés and the Jam Card, recently announced its five-year strategic growth plan in Ireland. At a table by the window, I sit and chat over coffee and smoothies with some people who can tell me more.


Now Group was born in Belfast, but we operate across Northern Ireland now and we’re in the process of expanding across the island of Ireland,” says Maeve Monaghan, its chief executive. “We train people with intellectual disabilities and autism. [In Loaf Café] we have some roles ring-fenced for people who are coming through the criminal justice system as well. But [we support] anybody who needs any level of support [to get] jobs.”


Over the next five years, the group is targeting the creation and delivery of 25 employment academies. These will upskill people and match them with potential employers. Now Group is also actively recruiting participants for a new programme, funded by Rethink Ireland’s Urban Uplift Fund, which supports youth employment in Dublin’s most disadvantaged areas.


NOW Group CEO Maeve Monaghan outside Loaf Cafe in Kilmainham

“The idea is to provide an opportunity,” Monaghan says. “There are so many amazing people, but they don’t know what’s out there. They just need a little bit of support and guidance. We have that ability to do it.”


Eighteen-year-old Ronan Deevy Gray has started the programme. When asked what appeals to him about it, he says: “I think it would be a step between doing nothing and doing something.”


Deevy Gray struggled for years with dyslexia, and left school during the Covid pandemic, when attending became too much of a challenge. “He was at a loss,” his mother Patricia Deevy says. “He was with CAMHS [the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service], but they finish at [the age of] 18. And we were literally just told, off you go now, find something in the wild for him. And that’s not possible for Ronan. You need to bridge that gap.”


Niamh Jones, regional manager at Now, has been working with Deevy Gray in the early stages of his training. She agrees that it’s important to receive support at pivotal life stages.

“Ronan is starting that journey now of doing a little bit of training with us, exploring what his goals and aspirations are, making some new friends along the way. And as he moves into continued employment, he’ll still have support from our employment team.”


Ronan Deevy-Gray with his mother Sharon Gray at Loaf Cafe in Kilmainham

Deevy Gray says he’d like to work in the hospitality sector, for example at Loaf Café. But the Now academies assist participants with employment and/or employability in various sectors.


“We do a lot of academies in hospitality, catering, digital, ICT,”Jones says. “We start with what we call a suitability meeting where we sit down with the individual and find out what they want to do. This may be [to join] one of the hospitality and catering academies, which run for 12 weeks. And during that 12 weeks, [they] will get the opportunity to do a placement here in Loaf – or if they’ve identified somewhere else that they really want a placement in, we’ll source that for them.”


The group also provides support to companies which are hiring. “We partner with a range of employers based on what individuals want for themselves and where there are jobs available,”Monaghan says. “[We] then provide that bridge between somebody who is thinking about work but maybe needs a bit of support, and the businesses.”


The Now model has had a lot of success in Northern Ireland, placing 200 people each year into jobs. Of these, 93 per cent are still in work after 12 months.


“So, it definitely works,” Monaghan says. “But I suppose for us, we’re doing that balance of operating social enterprise businesses that generate income, along with providing ongoing support services.”


As part of the organisation’s five-year growth plan, it has committed to assisting 300 participants into jobs with a future. It also plans to open another Loaf Café in Dublin soon.


“We want as many people in our groups as possible and as many businesses that want to be involved,” Monaghan says. “The more people we have on our books, the more people we can link with jobs.”


Deevy says her son’s participation in the programme has brought an immense amount of relief and hope into her life. “You’re terrified kids are going to go down the wrong path, because they’ve no path, you know? Something like this – you can’t pay for it. I would if I could!”


For more information about NOW Group's Training and Jobs Programmes visit www.nowgroup.org/training-jobs


THE BIG READ FROM THE SUNDAY BUSINESS POST BY NIAMH DONNELLY



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