A bet­ter fu­ture

A cafe in Ipoh gives chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties the chance to re­alise their po­ten­tial.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By N. RAMA LO­HAN star2@thes­tar.com.my Ray Of Hope (Tel: 05-548 8796), 26, Per­siaran Ber­cham Se­la­tan 31, Ta­man Sri Ku­rau, 31400 Ipoh, Perak, opens on week­days from 9am-5pm.

TELL him your birth­date and he will be able to tell you the day you were born,” ca­joled Datin Mary Yeoh of Ray Of Hope cafe in Ber­cham, Ipoh, Perak. Right on cue, 17-year-old Yeoh Sheng Jae, re­torts to the re­vealed birth­date: “Wed­nes­day”. And he’s right! The teenager may have learn­ing is­sues, but hints of his sa­vant syn­drome, like the abil­ity to cal­cu­late days of dates, sug­gests that he is ex­cep­tion­ally smart in cer­tain ar­eas.

Yeoh is learn­ing how to use his abil­i­ties at the Ray Of Hope, an eatery that has given hope to 61 chil­dren and 13 young adults (be­tween the ages of 19 and 26) who have learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, but who are ea­ger to lead nor­mal lives.

The es­tab­lish­ment, which opened its doors in early 2004 (ex­pand­ing to a sec­ond ad­join­ing lot in 2006), as­pires to equip chil­dren and young adults with liv­ing skills gleaned at a restau­rant, like learn­ing to make pas­try, bak­ing and serv­ing cus­tomers. And it is also an award-win­ning cafe dish­ing out good food.

“I fol­lowed my hus­band around on his rounds and re­alised how much help needy peo­ple re­quire. Their sit­u­a­tion brought tears to my eyes, but I soon re­alised that they need my help, not my tears,” says Ray Of Hope chair­per­son Yeoh.

Her hus­band, Datuk Yeoh Beng San, is the pres­i­dent of the Perak As­so­ci­a­tion for the In­tel­lec­tu­ally Dis­abled (PAFID), and that has given her a ring­side view of the plight of those liv­ing with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties in Ipoh.

Her work as a church ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Cor­ner­stone Sanc­tu­ary, put her in good stead to lead the pro­gramme at Ray Of Hope, which comes un­der the purview of the church dio­cese.

“Par­ents who have chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties have ap­proached the church to ask what they could do once their chil­dren have com­pleted their early in­ter­ven­tion pro­gramme. So, there was a de­sire to have ad­di­tional pro­grammes. And when the pas­tor at my church, The Rights Rev­erend Datuk Ng Moon Hing, pro­posed it, I de­cided to give it a try,” said Yeoh.

Ray Of Hope was built on a foun­da­tion of love and af­fec­tion, and sup­ported by the Perak Wel­fare Depart­ment and cor­po­ra­tions such as Marche, CIMB Bank, Hong Leong Bank and Sin Soon Seng En­ter­prise. With the funds they re­ceived, Yeoh’s team set up the eatery. They ren­o­vated the cafe, equipped it with cook­ing ap­pli­ances and stor­age fa­cil­i­ties, and bought a van for its cater­ing arm. The church out­sources the man­age­ment of the cafe’s ac­counts as a check and bal­ance mea­sure to en­sure funds are not mis­ap­pro­pri­ated.

Open­ing a cafe as the busi­ness model seems like a cu­ri­ous choice for a cen­tre that caters to in­di­vid­u­als with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, but Yeoh re­lied on the ex­per­tise of her brother, who works in the F&B in­dus­try, for guid­ance. “Most places have wood­work and weav­ing, but I wanted to give the chil­dren va­ri­ety, so I chose to open a cafe in­stead,” said Yeoh.

Among the con­di­tions the chil­dren have are Down Syn­drome, Autism, At­ten­tion Deficit Hy­per­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der (ADHD) and brain dam­age from a lack of oxy­gen. Most of the chil­dren come from Ipoh, but pre­vi­ously, some have come from Kam­par, Gopeng, Cameron High­lands and the sur­round­ing ar­eas in Perak.

Walk­ing into the cheer­ily-painted Ray Of Hope, one im­me­di­ately gets the feel­ing there’s plenty of love in the place. It has a few well-fur­nished classrooms, rooms for recre­ation, com­puter lab, a hall for mu­sic per­for­mance and more. And the choice of colours of the in­te­rior decor con­jures a sun­shiny vibe.

The ha­lal-cer­ti­fied cafe is a train­ing ground to pre­pare teenagers and adults with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties to work in an eatery. Learn­ing in­come-gen­er­at­ing and self-re­liance skills is also good for the stu­dents’ self es­teem.

“It boosts their self-es­teem and al­lows them to re­alise their po­ten­tial, con­se­quently giv­ing them a sense of pride and dig­nity. Learn­ing how to bake and dress cook­ies, and do the things we do here also al­lows them to ex­press them­selves.”

More im­por­tantly, Yeoh hopes other restau­rants and cafes will hire the mem­bers they have trained. “We’d like to think of our place as a good train­ing ground,” she said, adding that Ray Of Hope’s cur­ricu­lum is based on Minds (Move­ment For The In­tel­lec­tu­ally Dis­abled of Sin­ga­pore). The train­ing pro­gramme for their bak­ing and com­puter lessons are their own.

Food of­fered at the ha­lal-cer­ti­fied cafe in­cludes pas­tries, cook­ies, main cour­ses and desserts, and ne­ti­zens have given the eatery a royal thumbs up. Last year, Ray Of Hope won Ipoh City Hall’s clean­est restau­rant prize, which at­tests to the cafe’s high stan­dards.

“The monthly op­er­a­tion cost for the cafe is RM40,000, so funds are usu­ally our main con­cern. But we are grate­ful for all the as­sis­tance that’s come our way.”

For their hard work, the chil­dren earn RM100 as monthly al­lowance.

Ul­ti­mately, Yeoh hopes to see a town­ship of sorts, pur­pose-de­signed for chil­dren and peo­ple with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. “It would be nice to have a place where the en­tire com­mu­nity comes to con­trib­ute, like buy­ing the town­ship’s pro­duce to sus­tain it,” she said.

It may be a long way yet, but it all starts with a dream, and Yeoh even hinted that she might just have a blue­print for it.

Shin­ning tal­ent: yeoh Sheng Jae (left) is able to tell any­one the day they were born from their birth­date.

datin mary yeoh (with plaque for the clean­est restau­rant award) is sup­ported by a re­li­able team of em­ploy­ees, some of whom are moth­ers of chil­dren learn­ing at the cafe.

The stu­dents learn to bake at ray of Hope, a skill which could help them gain em­ploy­ment in other restau­rants as well.

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