'It just gives me hope': People on autism spectrum help run café

The Owl Café and Meeting Place, which opened Monday, is one of Ottawa's only social enterprises that specifically hires and trains staff and interns on the autism spectrum.

The Owl Café helps young people get job skills

The Owl Café, one of Ottawa's first social enterprises hiring youth on the autism spectrum, had a busy opening day on Jan. 14, 2019. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

When Kathryn Beaumont stood inside The Owl Café on its opening day Monday, she discreetly used her sleeve to wipe away the tears that quickly ran down her cheeks.

She looked at the long line of customers that patiently waited to order, then her gaze fell on the people behind the counter.

People on the autism spectrum, just like her two children, make up most of the staff at the café at 1140 Morrison Dr. in Ottawa.

"[My kids] are that age where I'm thinking about their future and where they are going to go," Beaumont said after she bought her latte and sat at a wooden table.

"It's beautiful, I've seen the people serving and I thought it was amazing. It just gives me hope." 

The Owl Café and Meeting Place is one of Ottawa's only social enterprises that specifically hires and trains staff and interns on the autism spectrum.

The employees are paid minimum wage.

The café also takes in interns through Y's Owl Maclure's 12-week job readiness training program, which provides people with in-class instruction and practical experience. When they graduate, they are offered employment at the café 

During off hours, the café transforms to a hub for programs and activities for people on the spectrum.

"I think it's an amazing group of kids that have not really been understood and people don't really know how intelligent they are and what strengths they have," said Suzanne Ford, director of autism services at Y's Owl Maclure, which is behind the café.

"In our café you will always see people that are all over the spectrum." 

Suzanne Ford first launched the Owl Café as a pilot project in Carleton Place, where she sold homemade soups, sandwiches, treats, coffee and tea. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

Jordan Edwards, a receptionist at Y's Owl Maclure who is on the autism spectrum, said he is planning to help out at the shop. 

He said he previously worked at a small makeshift café, which was nestled inside the organization's building before the The Owl Café came to be.

Edwards said his latest goal is to learn how to make lattes and cappuccinos.

Jordan Edwards works as a receptionist and said he is planning to help out at the shop. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

Some of the people working there are non-verbal and are supported by other staff members. 

The schedules are tailored to meet each of the staff's needs.

A person who can only work three hours a week will only get the amount of hours they feel comfortable working, Ford said.

The café has also welcomed some youth who have Down syndrome and wanted to join in.

"It's a very different kind of place because they take people of all kids of disabilities, and they like to focus on their abilities … It's just nice to be valued," Edwards said.

"[One of the] greatest things about this place is that they give you lots of skills by working here."

It was also a special day for Ford, who first launched the social enterprise as a pilot project three years ago in Carleton Place.

Battling isolation, loneliness

The café had a busy opening day, but staff quickly and calmly learned to work the new cash registers and the espresso machines and customers smiled and patiently waited for their orders — something unusual for many coffee shops in the city. 

​Mistakes at The Owl Café, Ford said, are very welcomed.

It's an opportunity for them to overcome anxiety in a safe space, she said, adding no one has ever been fired.

"We know that people may get anxious at work, [they] may get upset, [they] may yell [or] may come in late," she said.

"In the past, historically people would lose their employment because of these things … we accept those things and we work on those things."

Not all the staff at the new Owl Café, which opened on Jan. 14, 2019, are on the autism spectrum. Some are also youth with down syndrome who wanted to join in and work. (Miriam Katawazi/CBC)

Her agency, Ford said, historically always met with adults on the spectrum who were in crisis.

She said she would be called countless times to assist people on the spectrum who faced difficulties and trauma inside work places.

"The adults taught us what would have helped them when they were younger, and we put those skills in place here," she said.

"Our goal is to help kids avoid some of these pitfalls, avoid hospitalization, avoid depression, make friends and transition into the world of adulthood."