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agendaNi explores the growing success of Stepping Stones NI which has underwent an expansion from a pilot project to now operating six highly successful social enterprises helping those with learning disabilities and learning difficulties.
Almost two decades after being established as a pilot project in Lisburn by parents, carers and the health trust to provide adults with learning disabilities and learning difficulties with steps towards employment, Stepping Stones Northern Ireland continues to grow and expand.
Initially set up with just five employees, the organisation now employs a total of 65 staff across six social enterprises and its range of services, and has been widely recognised for its model of providing training leading to employment.
To give a scale of Stepping Stones NI’s influence, last year the organisation saw 182 trainees gain accredited qualifications and a further 60 bespoke non-accredited qualifications. A total of 173 people with learning disabilities and learning difficulties were supported through its Employment Service, 19 of whom gained paid employment. Employers have recognised the success and benefits of its work too, with over 400 engaged with the organisation.
“What we do helps build better futures for all our clients and trainees, and in the process we help create more inclusive communities.”
Chief Officer of Stepping Stones NI, Paula Jennings, says that the level of engagement has “played a pivotal role in changing attitudes and perceptions towards people with a learning disability”.
Jennings, who has worked with Stepping Stones NI for over 18 years, adds: “We know what our clients can achieve with the right support and guidance, it is our job to help them identify their passion and talent and to turn their dream into a reality. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the positive change in a trainee who will arrive at our door with limited confidence to seeing them gain qualifications, work experience and a paid job. That is real and lasting change and our trainees are at the heart of what we do”.
As well as providing a realistic training platform for trainees, the social enterprises also generate an unrestricted income for the charity. Along with the recently re-branded Courtyard Café on Seymour Street, a renovated stone barn with character and charm, where trainees are supervised by experienced catering and hospitality staff in food preparation and service, Stepping Stones NI also operates The Avenue on Wallace Avenue in Lisburn, a coffee house and business venue. The opening of two further social enterprise cafes last year with associated employment services: The Garden Café at the Saint Patrick Visitor Centre in Downpatrick and the Gatelodge Café at the entrance to Ards Community Hospital in Newtownards, emphasises the growth and development of the organisation.
“We know what our clients can achieve with the right support and guidance, it is our job to help them identify their passion and talent and to turn their dream into a reality.”
Outside of catering the organisation also run a bespoke wedding stationary company named Pink Elephant Cards and a Guild-commended picture framing business. All of the profits from each of the business are reinvested to support its work that make a difference people’s lives.
Jennings explains that funding helps Stepping Stones NI make an impact on the lives of people with learning disabilities and learning difficulties as early as school age. “Our support starts with our transition service team working in schools to help young people make informed decisions about their future after leaving school. Our youth service team support young people aged 16-24 to engage in volunteering, training, mentoring, work taters and placements. What we do helps build better futures for all our clients and trainees, and in the process we help create more inclusive communities”.
Conor Magee, a trainee working two days a week at the Avenue Café explains: “I love being part of Stepping Stones NI, they have helped me gain new skills and make lots of new friends. I have learnt so much and I feel more confident. I have really enjoyed the training Stepping Stones NI has provided.”
Fellow trainee Jodie Parker at The Gatelodge Cafe in Newtownards adds: “I am more independent and I have improved in the kitchen. My favourite thing to help make is wheaten bread. I love coming in and making new friends.”
The success of the organisation has not been without recognition, at the 2016 Lisburn and Castlereagh City Business Awards, Stepping Stones NI picked up the Best Social Enterprise Category and Chief Officer Jennings was awarded Business Person of the Year, alongside being highly commended as Best Social Enterprise at the NI Social Enterprise Awards.
Explaining the value of their work, Hannah Morrison from Stepping Stones NI’s Youth Service says: “I love my job, every day is different. My role is so rewarding, I get to see our participants flourish and progress. This can be someone who lacked confidence then making friends and actively participating in the group right to one of our participants leading an activity. I love to see all the positive outcomes and I feel so proud when our participants are ready to move on to our Employment Service.”