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Service with a smile

25th Chwefror 2020

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

Alan Thompson is a bit of a celebrity at the Superstars Cafe, a National Lottery funded scheme that's changing lives

Alan Thompson at work at the Superstars Cafe, Cookstown, Northern Ireland

Alan Thompson is a familiar face at the Superstars Café, a social enterprise on the busy main road that bisects Cookstown in County Tyrone. Serving cakes and coffees with a broad smile and a steady hand, the 39-year-old dynamo is something of a celebrity among regular customers.

“I like working here,” he says as he transports another tray of dirty crockery to the kitchen. “It makes me happy.”

Pressed for more details he says his favourite task is cooking and nominates sausage and beans as his speciality. “My best friend is Sarah,” he adds before disappearing through the saloon doors to collect another round of lattes and tray bakes.

Alan, who has Down’s Syndrome, was considerably less outgoing when he visited the café for the first time four years ago. His protective mother had kept him at home following the death of his father. He was reluctant to speak and struggled to interact with others.

“His mother trusted us,” says May McAvoy who founded the Superstars Club 16 years ago after becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to her own son, Jon, who has Down’s Syndrome and autism. “Initially Alan was able to do very little – if you asked him for a spoon he would have brought you a bucket. But we gave him the support he needed to grow and learn and string things together. Now he’s thriving.”

The café is clearly a supportive place for both the trainees and the small team of volunteers and paid staff who train and supervise them. And the packed dining room suggests it’s a popular meeting place for locals.

Nicola Hughes, a trainee at the Superstars Cafe in Cookstown, Northern Ireland

“This has become a place in Cookstown where people from any walk of life, any ability or disability, feel comfortable, says May. “There’s great empathy – a great welcome here. We’ll go the extra mile to make people feel comfortable and we’re proud of that.”

Alan is one of about 30 trainees with learning disabilities who are picking up valuable life skills at the Superstars Café. Directly across the road the latest addition to the Superstars empire – a facility called The Enterprise – offers a further 70 people both training (everything from cooking and waiting skills to gardening in a polytunnel) and paid work assembling parts for local engineering firms.

The two buildings are just part of the Superstars story, however. It also runs a 10-pin bowling club on Tuesday nights, a theatre group on Wednesday nights and a sports club on Thursday nights. On Saturdays the café hosts a social club where activities range from craft classes to the popular shoot-em-up computer game sessions on three computers.

“The mission is to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities and provide them with choices,” says McAvoy. “It needs an awful lot of people to make it work, but it’s very, very rewarding work.”

The salaries and expenses of some of the staff and volunteers that keep the Superstars Club afloat have been paid by The National Lottery. Last year, Superstars won a People’s Project grant – a payment of up to £50,000 – that secured equipment and coaches for the sports club. Another grant of about £290,000 over three years from The National Lottery Community Fund Northern Ireland’s Empowering Young People (EYP) programme, helped pay for the staff, support workers and equipment needed to get The Enterprise off the ground.

The main room of the Superstars Cafe in Cookstown, Northern Ireland

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

“The Lottery has made it possible for us to broaden our horizons,” says May. “Buying things like table tennis tables and pool tables is very expensive, so the support is fantastic.”

The café isn’t the end of the story, of course. The aim is to get trainees into part or fulltime work and May can list plenty of success stories. One young man recently secured a part time job at a supermarket in Cookstown, two women have landed jobs at the town’s McDonald’s and a third works behind the counter at a small shop.

“We believe that learning disabilities are the most ignored form of disability because you can’t see them,” says May. “But we believe these young people are here for a purpose and they have a right to a say in society.”