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City Weekend

Grounds for optimism: Hong Kong’s special needs teenagers gain new confidence as baristas

With a little help from the Salvation Army and a local cafe chain, young people are learning new skills, and how to express themselves, making coffee

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 2:57pm

Because of his dyslexia, Tim Wong Man-hon struggled at school.

The 17-year-old pupil’s homework would often turn out sloppy and messy, much to his parents’ disappointment.

“It drove my father crazy picking up my wrong words, but I couldn’t help it,” he said. “All I could do was to keep correcting and correcting.”

But these days, things are looking up for Wong, in part thanks to a new-found passion for coffee.

He is among a group of teenagers with special educational needs (SEN) who workers at the Salvation Army have helped train as baristas.

The pupils, who also struggle with learning difficulties including dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), have been developing their confidence making coffee on the Christian charity’s Natural Cafe scheme since 2014.

Aged between 16 and 18, pupils on the course learn how to make perfect cup during eight training sessions at the Salvation Army Integrated Service for Young People, in Tuen Mun.

Primarily trained by baristas at cafe chain Espresso Alchemy in Tsim Sha Tsui as part of a special partnership, they have also learned to create latte art, making patterns and pictures in their coffee foam.

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At Natural Cafe in Tuen Mun, project leaders have put the writing back to front on the menu in an attempt to grab customers’ attention and prompt them to educate themselves about the workers’ learning disabilities.

Wong, who has developed a preference for black coffee, said the scheme had boosted his confidence as well as providing him with new skills.

“I can learn something outside of just reading books and I can make friends too,” he said. “I enjoy talking with the customers. For me, sometimes I find it difficult to express myself in words. And I like making delicious coffees. That gives me a sense of achievement.

“The trainers were nice, kind and humorous too. That gave me more motivation to learn.”

Regan Suen Wing-hong, a social worker for the Salvation Army, said it was rewarding to see the students’ development.

“We find they are really interested in the latte art particularly, and from there they wanted to learn more,” he said.

SEN pupils can struggle in Hong Kong’s often high-pressure school environment. Many say they feel ignored and unsupported in a school system which puts almost all emphasis on academic achievements.

The number of local students assessed as having SEN has steadily increased as awareness of learning difficulties in the city has grown. In the last academic year, there were 42,890 SEN pupils at the city’s mainstream primary and secondary schools.

Pupils with multiple learning disabilities will sometimes be enrolled in one of the city’s 60 aided special schools, which taught 6,800 students last year.

The government has faced growing calls to provide better support for these children, but a spokesman for the Education Bureau said that in the last academic year it spent HK$1.417 billion on additional support services for SEN pupils.

Wong said he is still deciding what career path to pursue, but that he does not want to do a run-of-the-mill office job.

He recently enrolled on a computer science programme at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education, having graduated from Yan Chai Hospital No 2 Secondary School, in Tuen Mun, this year.

“I would like to do something more active and vocational,” he said. “Most schools in Hong Kong focus on the academic results and less on extracurricular activities.”

Ambrose Peter Law Hong-shing, owner of Espresso Alchemy, said he hoped some of the scheme’s graduates would eventually find paid work in the coffee industry.

“It’s a good little skill to have, as coffee is a growing industry in Hong Kong,” he said. “The job prospects are good.”