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August 12, 2020

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Workers who embrace their jobs with gusto

Meng Tianci jumps out of his chair when a vehicle ap­pears at the car wash. Stretching his body to the limit over the vehicle to scrub it, he looks as if his whole life depends on his getting it right.

Meng, 20, who has Down syn­drome, got this very first job months ago at the Menggong­fang Car Wash in Shanghai, after idling at home with his parents and no prospects. Within days, he learned how to wash and rinse a car.

“I love this job very much,” he says. “I feel so happy and want to come to work every day. Working is so much better than staying at home.”

Menggongfang, which trans­lates as “dream workshop,” is creating dream jobs for the mentally disabled.

The business started as a cof­fee shop in June 2019, located next door to the campus of the Pudong Special School, which teaches young people with in­tellectual disabilities. In fact, the idea of setting up the cof­fee shop came from Wang Ying, the school headmistress.

She proposed the idea to Yu Chenghong, a local restaurant owner.

“I had been running a busi­ness here for more than 10 years, and I saw so many sto­ries unfold at this school. So I wanted to help,” says Yu. “It’s not only about realizing their dreams but also my own.”

Yu confesses she had some misgivings when she opened the coffee shop. Cafes offer­ing freshly ground coffee are a dime a dozen in Shanghai. Coffee lovers can buy inexpen­sive cups from coffee chains and from specialty brew shops. Menggongfang couldn’t really compete with them.

Yu’s cafe is just a run-of-the-mill coffee shop, tucked away in an old neighborhood with no nearby commercial activity. Her employees have disabilities that sometimes make both work and communication with customers difficult.

“Even a fancy coffee shop needs at least two to three years to cover startup costs and break even,” Yu explains, based on her 26 years of experience in the catering industry. “I started ex­pecting huge losses. Even in my wildest dreams, I didn’t expect to actually make any money.”

She is delighted to admit she was wrong. The business has survived and is making ends meet. Even during the height of the epidemic outbreak, many people came to buy cups of cof­fee for front-line workers such as police, medical staff and community volunteers. Yu es­timates the shop sold more than 7,000 cups.

“It is the kindness of society that supports our coffee shop,” she says. “But basically, it’s still a business. I don’t want to have to Daily

rely completely on well-meaning consumers. That’s why I decided to diversify operations.”

This year, the car wash, a noodle restaurant and a super­market have opened, one after another, on a 200-meter stretch of Chengshan Road in Pudong.

At present, Menggongfang is ticking along well, especially the car wash.

In its three months of opera­tion, Meng and three co-workers washed nearly 1,500 cars.

“You can pay 365 yuan (US$52) for a year of car washes, though the offer doesn’t extend to week­ends and holidays,” Meng says as he dries the car of a Shanghai Daily reporter.

As the last step, he politely asks the reporter to scan a QR code to pay.

“They really appreciate their jobs,” Yu says of her employees. “Normally, workers want breaks and holidays, but these people want to work every day.”

When the coffee shop had to close temporarily during the novel coronavirus outbreak, the workers kept pressing Yu for information about when they could return. Some feared losing their coveted jobs.

When the shop finally re­opened and foot traffic was light, one of the workers even went out into the street to try to drum up business from passers-by.

The chance to become more independent of families boosts the self-confidence of the disabled.

“I’m so happy that I can earn some money to give to my parents,” Meng tells Shanghai Daily.

Authentic workplace

Yin Hao, 21, who also has Down syndrome, works at the coffee shop. He wants to become a professional barista and can already “draw” about 10 differ­ent designs on the top of a latte, including a flower and a heart. It took a lot of practice.

“I love my mother so much,” Yin says. “She loves latte, so I want her to like my coffee. I want to relieve the burden on her by becoming more independent and taking care of myself.”

Menggongfang isn’t a charity. It’s an authentic workplace. All staff have signed service con­tracts, just like employees at any other shop. In addition to wages, they receive basic social insurance.

“I want them to be able to earn their own living,” Yu explains. “The very first step is to instill in them a sense of self-worth. In the past year, I can see how they have changed. They believe they can handle any task.”

At first, however, the going was tough. Her disabled em­ployees often refused to talk and some showed anti-social behavior. Yin, for example, would often have temper tan­trums and throw things.

“We had to find a way to com­municate with him,” Yu says. “We discovered his interest in coffee and centered our talks with him on that. Gradually, he opened up more and settled down.”

Even Yin acknowledges the change in himself.

“I have become a better per­son,” he says.

Patience and perseverance pay off. Yang Ankun, 22, who suffers from autism, has gone from being an introvert to a chatterbox during his time working at the coffee shop.

“They can be a bit slow, but they take this job very seriously,” says Ren Jiabao, manager of the car wash. “With careful training and repetitive work, they can do better than anyone.”

Headmistress Wang lauds enterprises that are willing to employ the intellectually disabled.

“These children stay at our school for 13 years, and they grow into adults,” she says. “They live happily enough on campus, but what happens to them when they leave and have to enter society?”

Finding jobs for the disabled is a matter of matching a per­son’s skills to the right work.

Xu Xiang, 20, who suffers from autism, has a gift for num­bers. He was given a job in the Menggongfang Supermarket, where he can rattle off prices for dozens of items by heart.

Yu admits that her business can’t accommodate all the needs. She often has to turn down job applications.

“Almost every day, par­ents come in seeking a job for children with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “It’s over­whelming, and I am powerless to help them all. At present, we take only graduates from the Pudong Special School, and just now I don’t have any job openings.”

She says she hopes that the concept of Menggongfang will eventually expand across Shang­hai and help more people.


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