This Kolkata Breakfast Joint Run By Specially-Abled Adults Was Started By Six Caring Mothers

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Sip N Bite – a small, quaint breakfast cafe tucked inside the handicraft boutique Motherland, with its characteristic green, shuttered windows and yellow walls exuding the nostalgic essence of Kolkata, offers something beyond their sumptuous ‘snacks and beverage’ menu. The cafe is completely managed by specially-abled adults, each of whom partakes in the nitty-gritty of running a successful venture – right from baking fabulous cupcakes to tabulating the days’ profits in the accounts log. While society might not have been proactive in integrating them in the mainstream, their mothers have joined hands to launch this beautiful breakfast joint to provide them with permanent employment and a dignified professional identity.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

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Sip N Bite is managed by a team of 16 special adults

Inside the cafe, 16 young men and women can be spotted cooking in the kitchen, serving hungry customers with an amiable smile or diligently calculating the bills. Their expertise and sincerity are sure to evoke awe, more so when someone learns that they have been diagnosed with Autism, Down’s Syndrome and other cognitive challenges. Genetic anomalies might have posed multiple obstacles throughout their lives, but have failed to dampen their soaring spirits.

The team of sixteen adults currently employed at Sip N Bite were all trainees at Transcendent Knowledge Society at one point, a skill development centre for special youngsters founded by Amrita Roy Chowdhury, a dynamic mother.

The mothers who started it all

“We offered a wide range of skill-based training at our centre. But, soon, the parents realised that the present scenario curtails their career prospects up to the training only. There is very less opportunity available for these youngsters to put their training to use in a professional setup and earn through it. We thought, why don’t we start something for them?” shares Amrita, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.

In collaboration with South Kolkata Parashmani, a parent-run organisation for their special children, Amrita and a group of five mothers started Sip N Bite at 13A, Lake Road, Kolkata last year – inside a handicrafts store. The cute and catchy name of the place was suggested by the group of workers themselves.

Aside from the outlet, Sip N Bite also puts up kiosks and stalls at corporate premises on special requests.

“Twenty chefs rejected our invite to train the employees”

Amrita recalls, “We never imagined that our youngsters would work so devotedly and with such perfection. These people were initially trained according to their passion, their communication skills and their grasping abilities. Before starting the cafe, we selected 16 of our best performers and invited professional chefs to train them. Twenty chefs rejected us upfront, one after another, for one reason or the other. Finally, the 21st and 22nd chefs graciously welcomed our students and mentored them for months. After a successful pilot project, we inaugurated the cafe finally in 2018.”

Food is the primary (and only) focus

All the workers at Sip N Bite are adults, aged between 20 and 40 years. A few of them were proud first-time voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. Amrita admits that the work has helped them evolve immensely. “They have had incredible personal growth,” she reiterates.

The employees work on a shift basis which entitles one to work for not more than four to five hours a day. A few of their mothers also assist them in the daily kitchen and counter chores.

“Our primary and exclusive focus is the food and only the food. We never ever portray the disabilities of our workers, rather we promote the exemplary breakfast platters cooked by them. And, I would admit that the response has been amazing from our customers. People keep coming back over and over again to enjoy the food in our soothing ambience,” shares Amrita.

The strategic location of the cafe near the morning walkers’ hub has been a boon for Sip N Bite, as hordes of young and old walkers keep pouring in for having a hearty meal and interacting with the amazing youngsters working there.

The baking skills of the Sip N Bite employees have been so widely acclaimed that the franchise is willing to launch their mobile bakery van soon.

Buying a mobile phone with first salary

Sip N Bite was started with the main aim of economically and socially rehabilitating special individuals. “Even today, there is a subtle sense of sympathy for many special individuals, often from their own extended families. But, here, they have become full-time professionals like every other adult and their families could not be more proud,” narrates Amrita.

However, the happiness of the employees overwhelms everything else. One of them purchased a mobile phone with his first salary, while another shyly expressed his desire to have a girlfriend, now that he has a stable job in life.

For the first-time voters in the team, it was exhilarating to go to the polling booth and stand in a queue – as equal as every citizen of India. One of the voters posted on her Facebook wall how happy she feels after ‘executing her democratic right’. This is exactly where lies the success of Sip N Bite mentor team – to help them grow as individuals and stand on their own feet in every aspect of the phrase.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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