Service with a smile: Subang's Tender Hearts Cafe proves people with disabilities can do the job

Mark Ryan Raj
Tender Hearts’ lovely and warm staff (from left) Sue Ann, Sharon Lee, Danny, Aizat and Sek Yi. — Picture by Choo Choy May

PETALING JAYA, August 9 — Being employed not only gives one a source of income.

It is also a chance to be independent.

But for those who have special needs, getting a job may not be that easy.

And that is where people like Sharon Lee come into the picture.

She actively employs and trains special needs youths with genetic disorders like down syndrome, autism and ADHD at the Tender Hearts Cafe in Subang Jaya.

Sharon Lee said that many people would be surprised at how capable and high-functioning these youths are. — Picture by Choo Choy May

“For a majority of these kids, after finishing their special needs courses or school when they turn 19, they have nowhere to go and apply themselves," said Lee in an interview with Malay Mail.

“It breaks my heart because these kids are so pure, and just want to be treated normally.”

Lee, who is a cancer survivor and has her own business selling her brand of toiletries, got the idea to start the social enterprise after realising that even though her daughter Sue Ann was educated, there were extremely limited opportunities for special needs people in the mainstream workforce.

This prompted her to start an informal catering business run by special needs youths called Tender Hearts in SS19 Subang Jaya, where they taught the youths how to cook and bake.

Sek Yi happily greets his customers while taking their orders. — Picture by Choo Choy May

“I’ve been active in charity work for a while, since my Leo Club days, but I wanted to do something in my own way, that I was passionate about, like cooking and baking,” said Lee.

Although it took some time, Tender Hearts has grown over the years from pop-up stands and catering jobs to being a full-fledged cafe with 17 special needs employees in Summit USJ serving a delicious menu of simple home-cooked dishes.

And business has picked up too, as Lee explained that they sometimes have to turn down jobs because there is simply “too much” to take on.

“Sometimes we have to turn down catering jobs because of a lack of resources and manpower, we can get two to three catering jobs a week,” said Lee.

At Tender Hearts, special needs youths, aged 17 and above, basically run the restaurant with the guidance of Lee and other devoted moms, as the kids do most of the prep work and serving customers.

“They can’t cook yet, they do the prep work and get the cafe ready every morning. But it’s only a matter of time until they can cook the dishes themselves,” said Lee.

Sue Ann preparing a Nasi Lemak Ayam dish, paired with their signature sambal. — Picture by Choo Choy May

The youths undergo training in cooking, baking and basic living skills, as well as attend workshops to enhance their newly acquired skills while learning new ones too.

They also attend a computer class conducted by a lecturer from Sunway University, where they learn how to use Microsoft Office applications.

“I want the kids to keep learning new things. We moms are not getting any younger," she added.

"We’re all in our 50s and 60s, so we have to prepare them for when we are not around."

Lee added that she is quietly hopeful that within five years the youths will be able to take full control of the cafe without supervision.

Other than organising workshops and classes, Lee also tries to teach the youths about marketing by bringing them out to shop for ingredients and also to the pop-up stands at food festivals.

“We try to expose them to as much as we can by bringing them out. They man the pop-up stands and interact with potential customers.

“It really helps with their social skills too.”

Danny serving customers at Tender Hearts, with a big smile on his face too. — Picture by Choo Choy May

And it is clear to see, as the youths like Danny and Aizat, are very sociable and welcome every customer to Tender Hearts with a smile on their faces as they happily take your order and have a conversation with you.

Rendang-loving Danny, 21, who is on his third week working at Tender Hearts explained: “I love working at Tender Hearts. We are all friends here and we work as a team.”

If you’re interested to know more about Tender Hearts, or maybe want to help out and volunteer at the cafe, you can visit them at lot S2.17 on the second floor of Summit USJ mall or click here.

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