Sao Mai: where philanthropy meets coffee
by Luong Thu Huong
|Return punters: Sao Mai (Morning Star) cafe crowded with regular customers thanks to good old fashioned word of mouth publicity. The 10 members of staff, made up of autistic and learning impaired young adults, take turns working in the cafe and participating in life skill classes.
|Understated: The frontage may not be flashy, yet Sao Mai has still become one of Ha Noi's most popular cafes. — VNS File Photos
"Nhi, don't forget to hold the trays with two hands to keep balance. Minh, look at me carefully and fold the tissues like this." The two students listen intently as Nguyen Thi Duyen gently prompts them. She repeats the instructions again.
Nhi and Minh are waiters at Sao Mai cafe, the modest little coffee shop at the end of Vu Trong Phung Street that is very quickly making a name for itself. There is no flashing illuminated sign to catch the eye, or the inviting sound of music. It is not particularly famous for its coffee. Instead, it is the mission of Sao Mai that is bringing in the customers. The cafe is part of a project that aims to support children and young adults with autism and mental disabilities to integrate into society.
Do The Hoang, the deputy manager explains how it works. "The purpose of the cafe is to create opportunities for autistic and learning impaired children to communicate more with the outside world. We give them jobs as waiters and teach them some basic life skills. They learn simple chores like cleaning, washing the dishes or welcoming customers." This all takes place under the careful supervision of manager and chief instructor Duyen.
The original idea behind the cafe came from Do Thuy Lan, vice chairwoman of Viet Nam Relief Association for Disabled Children. It received the support of several local and international organisations including RMIT University.
The cafe only opens during working hours from Monday to Friday (8.30am-4.30pm). There are 10 students currently at the centre, all participating in life skills classes throughout the day. The students take turns practising in the cafe, with two working in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Duyen says that the students require careful and repeated instruction while they learn. "The teaching can take a long time as the students are likely to forget quickly what they are taught. However, after carrying out a duty over and over again, they ultimately know how to do it instinctively."
Such duties, like cleaning the tables, rearranging the chairs or folding the tissues, take Minh, 12 and Nhi, 15, a long time to be able to carry out. But the learning process is highly rewarding for them and their patience pays off. Their faces glow with happiness at the prospect of another day working at Sao Mai.
To Duyen, the real pleasure comes from seeing her students grow in confidence. "Seeing them talk, laugh and learn how to welcome and say farewell to customers is a huge encouragement to us teachers"
Ta Ngoc Duy, a 19-year- old boy from Thanh Xuan District is a shining example of the progress the students can make. He joined Sao Mai five years ago, and to begin with felt shy and bewildered by his surroundings. However thanks to the teachers' enthusiastic instruction, Duy now works regularly in the cafe and speaks fluently with customers.
"I feel very happy working here. I have been able to do many duties like bringing coffee to customers or washing the dishes. I especially enjoy meeting many nice customers who are willing to talk and play with us," Duy says with a big smile.
Nguyen Bich Ngoc, Duy's mother, is delighted. "I'm so overwhelmed with surprise and happiness. I was moved to tears when Duy himself made me a drink for the first time."
She is full of praise for the Sao Mai programme. "Seeing Duy gradually improve and lose his fear of strangers makes my family very happy. All of this is the result of the opportunities he was given to work at the cafe and communicate with people, instead of wandering about in limited space."
Word of mouth has ensured that the popularity of Sao Mai continues to grow. Vietnamese and foreign customers fill the cafe every day, drawn by the chance to support the waiters and share a conversation with them. Many return regularly.
Le Quang Tuyen, a regular customer who first came across Sao Mai by chance says, "I was very surprised the first time I came here and learnt about the waiters' stories. I feel sympathetic and wanted to help. I come here often now, and I have introduced many of my friends to the cafe."
The organisation does not make a profit as all of the monthly income is used to supplement the children's meals at the centre or to buy gifts for them as Mid-Autumn Festival approaches.
But Sao Mai is not about making money. It is something more important. The attentive care and instruction of the teachers, as well as support from regular and new customers has filled Sao Mai cafe with the sound of laughter and happiness. In this small, discreet coffee shop hidden amongst the bustle of downtown Ha Noi the melody of life is resounding. Here one can feel the true value of love. — VNS