Wendy Vermeulen is breaking down stereotypes surrounding people with disabilities. By Bianca Hartel
At 4 pm, the hustle and bustle of Cape Town’s CBD usually begins to still to a quiet rustle, but for the quaint blue-and-white coffee shop at the bottom end of Long Street, the exact opposite can be said. Brownies & Downies is still abuzz as customers tuck into a late lunch and a final cup of barista-brewed coffee.
‘We are very, very happy here,’ says founder Wendy Vermeulen. At just 25, Wendy’s dedication towards facilitating a better future for South Africans living with mental disabilities is something to truly be admired.
Growing up in the Netherlands, Wendy always knew it was her destiny to help others, and pursuing social work was a natural choice. ‘I always wanted to work with people. As a little girl, I was always playing with dolls and taking care of them – that’s just who I am – and so, in Grade 11, I decided that I really wanted to go into social work.’
While completing her studies, Wendy was presented with the opportunity to do a social-work internship in SA. Keen to experience living in a new country, she eagerly jetted off and found herself working in the small town of Grabouw in the Elgin Valley. ‘The moment that I landed, I knew. I can’t explain it, I just knew it was where I wanted to be,’ says Wendy of her decision to stay in the country once she graduated.
It was while studying and immersing herself in South African culture that Wendy noticed the difficulties faced by the intellectually disabled after they leave school. ‘There are so few opportunities for them after they turn 18; they go to special-needs schools or even to “normal” mainstream schools, but when that’s over, there’s not a whole lot for them to do. I wanted to show people in South Africa that those who have intellectual disabilities can actually work – that they’re not stupid.’
New city, same concept
In an effort to break down stereotypes and facilitate an acceptance of mental disability within all spheres of society and the working world, Wendy drew inspiration from a popular concept born in the Netherlands. Brownies & Downies was founded in 2010 by two long-time friends, Teun Horck and Thijs Swinkels.
The aim of the initiative is to work with people who are affected by Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual and mental disabilities, training them for jobs in the hospitality industry, while at the same time encouraging normalised interaction between members of the wider public and those individuals
‘It’s a household name over in the Netherlands,’ says Wendy mentioning that there are 30 Brownies & Downies branches found throughout the small country. ‘That’s really pretty amazing, considering the Netherlands is smaller than the Western Cape.’
Having set up shop in February this year, Cape Town’s Brownies & Downies is a registered non-profit organisation modelled after the original concept. ‘It is all about training them so that they are employable, self-sufficient adults,’ explains Wendy.
The young adults were given barista training by Truth Coffee Roasters, as well as social-skills training and general hospitality-skills training; but the most important kind of skills development that they get comes from participating in the day-to-day running of the cafe. ‘They are busy learning on the job and do absolutely amazingly.’
Not offensive, but functional
‘I can understand the name might sound a bit strange to some,’ says Wendy. Despite the coffee shop’s good intentions, there have been concerns that the name may be seen as offensive to the Down syndrome community. But Wendy stresses the opposite: ‘When the founders were looking for a name for their coffee shop, they approached the parents of the young adults who would work there. The parents came up with the name and they don’t find it offensive. They felt that there was not enough awareness or attention around Down syndrome and intellectual disabilities and wanted a name that people would never forget.’
The cafe’s name has also been welcomed by South African Down syndrome and autism groups. ‘The people that matter love the name and the concept and – at the end of the day – that’s all that really matters,’ concludes Wendy.
A local favourite
Brownies & Downies has fast become a popular Cape Town lunch spot. Wendy explains, ‘Customers walked in with no expectations and that is exactly what we wanted. We wanted to prove them wrong. Now they come back because they love the service and the food is great,’ gushes the proud owner.
It is her great hope that Brownies & Downies will encourage other brands to give those with special needs a chance. ‘I really want to show South Africa that – like anybody else – they can do it. It might require a little bit of patience, but people with disabilities shouldn’t be shut out.’
Grab a snack
Brownies & Downies is located
at 2 Long Street, Cape Town.
For more information or to
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