Lands officials put church's disabled work plan on hold

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2012, 12:00am


A land-use issue has put a charity's plan to open a cafe staffed by young disabled people on hold, two years after it was granted HK$800,000 from the Operation Santa Claus appeal.

The Nesbitt Centre wants to operate the cafe from a kiosk at St John's Cathedral, which stands on the only freehold land in Hong Kong. A clause in the church's 1930 agreement with the government states the site will revert to the government if it ceases to be used as a church - and the Lands Department says the cafe might breach that rule.

'What [the Lands Department] is saying ... is that the coffee shop doesn't fit in with the idea of a church,' said Surinder Punjya, executive director of the Nesbitt Centre, which helps adults with learning disabilities. 'We wanted to open a social enterprise, modelled on Anglican churches in Europe. Many of these have cafes and restaurants attached.'

The department says it is still considering the issue, but the delay is proving frustrating for the charity.

The centre, which wants to give young adults with Down's Syndrome, autism and other disabilities a chance to work and feel more involved in the community, has spent two years working with the Buildings Department, the Antiquities and Monuments Office and the fire service to make sure its design wins approval. But the project has been in limbo since the Lands Department raised doubts in February.

The plan is for disabled staff to work from a temporary cubicle, selling drinks and snacks to the 50 or so church staff and visitors. About a dozen students working with different non-governmental organisations helping the disabled will also staff the kiosk on a shift basis.

'It's to make sure we encourage young adults with disabilities ... [and] destroy key myths about special education kids working. They actually take very few days off and are very punctual,' Punjya said. 'We also don't want tokenism; we want people to come because the service is good and efficient.

'The students ask me every day: 'When will the cafe open?' They want to work,' Punjya said. 'Why can't we just get on with the project?'

The Lands Department said it was 'considering the supplementary information provided by St John's Cathedral in relation to the building plans for the proposed coffee shop and will continue to communicate with the applicant.'

Operation Santa Claus is an annual charity campaign organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK. Proposals for the use of the HK$17.5 million raised in last year's appeal were due by yesterday .