Arotahi ā-Hapori | Community Focus: Project Employ

Auckland’s North Shore is home to the newly established Project Employ, a charity working to prepare young adults with intellectual or learning disabilities for meaningful, paid employment.  Project Employ’s co-Kaiwhakahaere (co-Directors), Diane Eaglesome and  Sarah Dann-Hoare, are committed to creating more inclusive communities and are preparing to open a training cafe in Takapuna to help realise that vision.  

“We are creating a cafe which operates just like any other,” Diane says, “except that it also serves as a training space for learning transferable work skills.  Young people between the ages of 18 and 28, who identify with a learning difference, come to us hoping to work in a range of fields – retail, office, hospitality, manufacturing – and we provide them with 1-to-1 or 1-to-2 training which is tailored to their aspirations.”

The key, Diane says, is to provide opportunities for Project Employ’s trainees to learn core skills that they can then take elsewhere in the workforce.  “They might be taking an order in the cafe but, through that task, will learn how to engage with people, provide customer service and deliver on a specific request.  Or they might be invited to a team meeting where they’ll learn how to contribute ideas and receive constructive feedback.  What we’ve seen is that, if you are a young person with a learning disability or a difference, it can be very difficult for you to gain work experience and learn those skills; opportunities like summer jobs or jobs for school-leavers aren’t really as open to you.  That’s the gap that we’re filling.”

When Project Employ first began its work in June of 2021, Diane and Sarah sought out as much collaboration, support and advice as they could find.  “Initially, we needed to apply for funding under the umbrella of partner organisations such as Autism New Zealand and Poly-Emp while we spent those early months adding to our skill sets and establishing Project Employ as its own charitable organisation.”  It was during this early phase of research and exploration that Diane first connected with Hui E! Community Aotearoa.  “We reached out to a lot of organisations during that time and built relationships with like-minded people who were aligned with what we were trying to do.  As a result, we ended up attending some of Hui E!’s webinars including ‘Creating a One-Sentence Statement for What You Do’ and ‘Fundraising in the Time of COVID’, both of which were really great.  We were able to clarify some of our thinking, set ourselves up for successful funding applications and connect with others who support us and love what we’re doing.”

As a new startup which needed funds before it could really start, Diane and Sarah knew that they had a lot of fundraising to do in order to get the cafe doors open.  A volunteer grant-writer from Hui E! was able to lend her expertise on a particularly tricky grant, and with that grant and subsequent funding now secured, their dream is about to become a reality.  “We were very strategic and targeted about what funds we applied for and, because of that, we were successful in all of our grant applications.  The result is that we’re now on track to open our cafe in Takapuna next month where we’ll be able to provide an authentic workplace for our trainees to learn the work skills they need to gain paid employment in the community.”

Building richer communities is the core objective for Project Employ, Diane says, by integrating people with intellectual or learning disabilities into our existing workspaces.  “Our trainees bring different values and strengths to a workplace and that diversity should be celebrated.  Adding staff to your organisation who think differently shouldn’t be seen as a problem, it’s a real benefit.”

Diane reflects that Project Employ’s recipe for early success has been embracing the help, advice and support of others doing great mahi.  “Attend the webinars, network and talk about what you do.  If you’re doing something in the for-purpose industry, you need people to back you and you won’t get that support if you don’t get out and meet people.  If there’s anything you aren’t sure about or need help with or don’t have as much experience with, just ask.  If the organisation you approach can’t help you, they can probably direct you to someone else who will.  For us, Hui E! was able to give us that advisory lens and some channels for professional development.  It’s invaluable finding someone who is really experienced in your field to support you and lend their experience.  Someone who has trod the journey before you is always going to be really helpful.  Hui E! did that for us.”