Italian restaurant finds new way of looking at disability

Updated 26 February 2014
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Italian restaurant finds new way of looking at disability

IT was another busy night for the staff with Down syndrome at the Girasoli restaurant in Rome, which serves up traditional pizza and pasta dishes along with a new way of looking at disability in the workplace.
The neon-signed restaurant was set up in a suburb southeast of the Italian capital by the parents of children with disabilities, and it functions just like any other eatery — except 13 of its 18 employees are handicapped.
“I love this room, monitoring it, making myself available, being in contact with people,” said Simone, a 24-year-old who after a paid internship of 600 hours now has a permanent contract with Girasoli (Sunflowers).
“And above all I just love being here!” he said.
When a group of women came in Simone deftly showed them to a table, clutching a few menus in his hand.
“We heard good things about it so we wanted to come,” said one woman, while her friend added: “Basically it’s a normal restaurant — except the waiters are nice!“
As he tucked into an amatriciana pasta dish, 64-year-old teacher Giuseppe said: “When you come here for the first time, you have certain expectations but you quickly realize that there is no need to have them!
The restaurant was set up in 2000 and is aimed at offering work to people with Down syndrome — a genetic disorder usually associated with physical growth delays and intellectual disability but many manage to complete university degrees and hold down jobs.
“My waiters do their job and do it very well,” said chief waiter Ugo Menghini, who is not handicapped, praising the efficiency and speed of his staff.
“If I was to set up my own business, I wouldn’t hesitate, I would hire people with Down syndrome.”
Like many businesses in Italy, the restaurant has been hit by the recession and was forced to shut for several months last year for restructuring and renovation.
It is now being run by Consorzio Sintesi, a social co-operative association which specializes in giving jobs to disabled people and also manages three call-centers for the Italian mobile phone operator Wind.
“The state pushes for assistance but we prefer professional training. Everything here is self-financed with no subsidies from the state,” Enzo Rimicci, the head of the association, told AFP.
“Every employee here manages to find their place based on their skills,” Rimicci said, explaining for example how one staffer, Marco, was too shy to work with customers but proved to be “a real machine” in the kitchen.

“Seen close up, no one is normal.” he said, repeating an old Roman proverb that he likes.
The restaurant’s training is rigorous and out of the 13 employees with Down syndrome, nine are still interns.
When Girasoli is closed in the morning, another team comes in to make cookies and cakes for the evening customers.
Anna, a 22-year-old waitress, came in even on her night off to have dinner with her parents.
“For us, for her it’s a great victory,” said her father, Carlo, tearing up as he described his daughter’s transformation since she started work.
“Our daughter has gained autonomy. When she comes home from work, she is happy, proud of what she’s done,” he said, adding that Anna had also made progress “in how she relates to other people, in her language.”
A further sign of the restaurant’s success is that another one is in the works.
A new one is expected to open soon in Palermo in Sicily and Rimicci said there were even plans to turn the idea into a franchise and create many more outlets.


Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

Updated 23 May 2019
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Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

  • Kerr's family fled Germany as the Nazi's rose to power
  • She based the characters on animals she had seen in real life

LONDON: British writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, whose death at 95 was announced on Thursday, captivated young readers around the world with her tales of a fluffy tiger coming to tea, a trouble-prone cat and her own family's flight from Nazi Germany.
With curly hair and a mischievous smile, the petite Kerr worked well into her 90s, saying she even picked up the pace in old age, drawing inspiration from events in her own life to become one of Britain's best-loved children's authors.
Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14, 1923, fleeing Germany 10 years later after a policeman tipped off her father Alfred Kerr, a prominent Jewish writer, that the family was in danger from the rising Nazi power.
"My father was ill in bed with flu and this man rang up and said: 'They are trying to take away your passport, you must get out immediately'," she recalled in an interview with AFP in June 2018.
He took the first train to Switzerland and his wife and two children soon joined him. A day after their escape, the Nazis took power.
The family moved on to Paris before settling in London in 1936.
This story is loosely recounted from a child's perspective in Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" (1971) in which the fleeing girl can only take one toy and so leaves behind a favourite rabbit.
Kerr, who started drawing at a young age, credited the success of the book with being "published at a time when the Germans hadn't really managed to talk to their children about the past".
But she is better known for "The Tiger Who Came to Tea", released in 1968 to become a global classic of children's literature, with at least five million copies sold and published in more than 30 languages.
Kerr's first picture book, it tells of a girl and her mother interrupted at teatime by a huge, fluffy tiger who eats everything in sight before leaving again.
She was able to write up the story -- a bedtime favourite of her young daughter -- while her husband was at work and their two children at school.
The fictional family mirrors her own at the time, the illustrations featuring the yellow and white kitchen cupboards of their London home.
Kerr used tigers at a London zoo as models for her feline creation.
Next was "Mog the Forgetful Cat" (1970), the first in what became a 17-book series about the antics of a mischievous, egg-loving moggy inspired by her own pet.
"Goodbye Mog" (2002) was meant to be the last offering -- broaching the subject of death with the much-loved cat departing for heaven. But supermarket chain Sainsbury's persuaded Kerr to produce one more in 2015: "Mog's Christmas Calamity".
Proceeds of the last book were for Save the Children's work on child literacy, and a TV advert was the first to feature Mog in animation with Kerr herself also making a cameo appearance.
In her illustrated story "My Henry" (2011) -- for children and adults -- an elderly lady fantasises about adventures with her late husband, such as climbing Mount Everest, hunting lions, and riding dinosaurs.
Kerr dedicated the book to her husband Thomas Nigel Kneale, a respected screenwriter who died in 2006. The couple met at the BBC, where they both worked, and married in 1954.
Commenting on the book in 2011, The Telegraph wrote: "For all the depth of underlying emotion, there's a celebratory feel to it, an unfeigned lightness of spirit that, throughout her life, has been a great boon.
"It has helped her cope with widowhood just as it allowed her to get over the loss, exile, penury and frustration of her early life."
In 2012 Kerr was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to children's literature and Holocaust education.