BeanScene Magazine

Who can? Ucan Café‘s Kathryn McPherson can.

From the February 2013 issue.
Who can? Ucan Café‘s Kathryn McPherson can.

Ucan Café is more than just a place that serves coffee, food and service with a smile. This Yorralla social enterprise is creating pathways for its staff to reach their full potential.

When Kathryn McPherson looks at the world, she sees a bright future – working as a chef, taking photographs as a hobby and travelling to Egypt to discover the ancient pyramids. It saddens her, then, when others see only her disability.

“After school I really wanted to be a massage therapist, but no one would hire me because ‘I’m disabled’. But I’m just visually impaired,” says Kathryn. “I tried to get any job in a supermarket or with anyone who would hire me, but I always had the same response: ‘You’re useless, you’re disabled, it’d be too hard to accommodate you.’”

After a year of rejection, a disheartened Kathryn joined SensWide, a disability employment service, for another shot at finding a job. When someone suggested she should apply for a barista job at the Ucan Café in Melbourne, she was cautious, but eager for the opportunity.

“I jumped at the chance. I’d never had a job before so I was really excited when I got this one,” she says. “And then I found coffee.”

Operating at the North Altona library in Victoria, the Ucan Café opened in August 2011 and serves school children, parents, community members and library visitors. The café provides employment for 11 disabled and disadvantaged young adults.

Kathryn is one of the Ucan Café’s “star baristas”. She easily finds her way around the coffee machine. She has but one slight disillusion with the drink she serves. “I actually don’t drink coffee,” she laughs. “I never drank coffee before this job and I still don’t. I find it makes me too hyper. But I do love the smell.”

Born with the vision impairment bilateral coloboma that’s left her with poor vision in one eye and only partial vision in the other, Kathryn’s sight at times consists only of mixed colours and shapes.

“I couldn’t understand why I was getting teased at school. I always thought I was normal because my parents treated me like I was normal. I didn’t actually know I was legally blind until last year (2011) – that was a big disappointment because I found out I wouldn’t be able to drive. But you have to get over it, [the situation’s] not going to change.”

Kathryn has a cane to help her around unfamiliar territories, but within the Ucan Café, she knows her way around like the back of her hand – especially the coffee machine.  

“I use a lot of sounds and the weight of things to make coffee,” she says. “When I’m filling up a jug I don’t need to look at it, I go by its weight. I can also smell the difference between normal milk, skinny, and soymilk. And for grinding – it’s automatic so it just stops.”

Other appliances like a coloured thermometer lets Kathryn know when the coffees are hot enough, just like any other café would do. And for pouring – she “just does it”.

“I learn from watching everyone. I watch the way they move and then Duc Nguyen (Ucan Café’s Assistant Manager) explains the process to me and walks me through it until I’ve got it down pat,” she says. “If I can’t get the hang of something, [Duc] always finds another way for me to figure it out, either by smell, touch or taste.”

Just as sharp as Kathryn’s coffee making skills, are her knife skills. Holding a large chef’s knife in one hand and pumpkin in the other, Kathryn cuts chunk by chunk in preparation for the next day’s functions. She feels her way through the chopping action – the knife pulsating on the board as it cuts, telling her to when to move her hand out of the way. “A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to cut a tomato,” Kathryn says.

From coffee to food, Michelle Whittingham, Ucan Café Operations Manager, has taken Kathryn under her wing and shares her passion and knowledge of food. A former chef, Michelle jumped at the chance to work at the Ucan Café.

“This place has sucked me in and taken me over,” says Michelle. “I love teaching people how to cook and I love sharing life skills with them. I just love the honesty of the guys here, I really appreciate it.”

With food and a future career as a chef on Kathryn’s list of ‘things to do’, Michelle says she’s got all the tools she needs to lead a successful life. “To see the maturity in herself is amazing. I now expect her to be a team leader and going forward I want to see her in a management role. The more skills she learns here the more chances she has for future employment,” she says.

Located in a quiet library corner, Michelle says that, on so many levels, what the staff are doing at the Ucan Café is no different to any other working environment.

“At first I thought everyone would be cutting their fingers and I’d need to give them constant supervision, but most are perfectionists. They take their time and whatever they make, they do it beautifully,” she says.

To read the aricle in full, see the February issue of BeanScene. Click here to subscribe

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