Providing steps to sustainable independence, employment and equality
Steps with Theera, established by Max Simpson and Theeta (Uang) Hotrakitya, has an ambitious goal from the start. It is a social enterprise created to provide a real-life training facility for trainees to learn life skills and accumulate work experience at the coffee shop while offering space for the community to learn more about autism and those with special needs.
Max came to Thailand over nine years ago and worked as a teacher at an international school for those with learning difficulties. However, one thing she realised is that most of the adult students here had no employment opportunities after they finished school.
“I first came to Bangkok to work in an international special needs school… I saw the students from age 2 to age 35 in the same environment. And the older guys never had the opportunity to move on from the education setting. At the same time, their parents are also quite worried about that, whether it is safe. So I went to a coffee shop in the same soi as the school, called Theera, and spoke to the owner (Uang). It turned out she has a son in the autism spectrum, so she was very open to working with us. I used to take groups of students from school to the coffee shop to gain experience.
“And then I had an early midlife crisis, I asked her, ‘If I quit my job, will you open a full project to do this with me,’ because I believed so much in it. She said yes, so here we are,” Max said.
Steps with Theera has a main hub on Ekamai Soi 10. The multi-purpose coffee shop is open to the public daily from 9am to 6pm. The menu items on offer here are all-inclusive and suitable for all dietary needs from meat lovers to gluten-free to vegan.
The vocational training centre is on the upper floors where trainees come to learn and develop life skills and employability to move into a work environment.
The training centre uses an accredited training programme from the UK, adapted to suit Thai culture. Each trainee will follow their personalised programme guided by their interests, whether it is art or computer programming. They will, in turn, create their portfolio with diary entries, completed tasks and photographs demonstrating their skills as proof of their employability. The curriculum aims to offer independence to trainees and eventually make them employable.
“My background is in special needs education. We came together as a team. We had no idea whether it would work…
“We thought we needed to have a customer environment because it offers the opportunity for the public to see people with disabilities living capably. Hopefully, once they make it outside of the shop, they will change the perception.
“Coffee shops are hard. But we did it. Three and a half years and now we have three coffee shops, two in Bangkok and one in Phuket. We have two training centres, one here and one in Phuket. And we have two zero-waste shops, one here and one in Phuket. So it grew very quickly, too scary, but it means that it’s working. We have about 13 employment partners who we work with. So when our guys graduate, they get to go to sustainable employment, paid employment, elsewhere.”
Some of the current employment partners include The Commons, Roast, Roots, El Mercado, Hyatt Regency, Rembrandt, Verasu, Vegan Crush and more.
“That’s been one of the key success factors in the programme, that it’s not just isolation here. I’m very much an advocate for this. I never wanted to do a charity because disabilities are already shoved under this umbrella, you know, ‘Na Song Sarn,’ and I wanted to move away from that.”
As for the Bangkok branch, they are considering moving to a new location to accommodate the programme’s rapid growth.
Steps with Theera offers both full-time and part-time training courses. Students may join at any time since the enrollment is ongoing.
There are 15 full-time employees, three of them have special needs and ten full-time trainees. The team comprises of a speech therapist, counsellors, psychologists and job coaches. The art and computer programming teachers are on a volunteer basis.
For partnership information, visit www.stepswiththeera.com/our-partners
Steps with Theera
29/8 Charonmit, Ekamai Soi 10
Tel: 02 381 6590
Open daily: 9am-6pm