NANAIMO — One of the Nanaimo area's most beloved establishments is celebrating six years of changing people's lives, while eyeing a major expansion at the same time.
Cedar's COCO Cafe hosts their sixth anniversary fundraiser from 12 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 17 at their Cedar Rd. location.
Through their Supported Employment Program, nearly half of the 33 employees at the award-winning cafe are adults with developmental disabilities.
Executive director Melanie Cadden said she's never been part of a more rewarding experience, noting some of their staff have been with them almost since day one.
"We really got to see them grow and take the job from just training to actual employment where they have a permanent position that they look forward to coming to every week, have responsibilities and are part of a team," Cadden told NanaimoNewsNOW.
Cadden said finding quality employment is incredibly challenging for people with disabilities and the impact they're having is "almost indescribable."
"I get calls from family members saying 'Thank you, I don't know what you're doing but they've changed, they're happy, they have this hop in their step.' Being part of a long-term employment opportunity is huge, it gives any person a sense of purpose."
The cafe was founded by four families in the Cedar-Yellow Point area and opened in 2011 after years of work behind the scenes. It was "literally built by the community," according to Cadden. She said they are now bursting at the seams, lined up out the door on weekends during the breakfast rush and booked solid for catering gigs all summer.
COCO can't grow any more at their current location, which has them looking at expansion to a second location closer to Nanaimo where they could centralize catering services. Cadden said they have a location in mind and are mulling what would be a huge step.
"It could double the amount of (supported employment) hours we're offering right now...I have a stack of resumes on my desk from people looking for the opportunity," she said.
Cadden said they're also trying to work with other employers in the community to show them how valuable hiring people with disabilities can be. All it takes is a little extra training and support.
"Once they learn, they will take pride in what they do and they will do it properly...When you can change someone's life and they come in and greet the rest of your staff with such pride and happiness and they greet your customers, it just puts a smile on everyone's face."
Robert Welbourne, 30, has worked at COCO for two years. He told NanaimoNewsNOW it's his goal to work there as long as he can.
"The community out here is great, the customers are so friendly," Welbourne said. "I have something to look forward to, to commute every week to come to work and also be around extremely nice coworkers."
Welbourne said his favourite parts of the job are dishwashing and the people he gets to be around at work. He's focused on trying to help others at the cafe more, pitching in with food prep or whatever needs doing. He's also hopeful a second location will become a reality to expand opportunities for people with disabilities.
Saturday's fundraiser is free to attend, although there is a BBQ buffet offered for $20 per person. The goal is to raise $10,000.
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