SAI Bakery offers adults with developmental disabilities space to bond & learn
It's Autism Pride Day tomorrow and we are happy to bring you a story on a cafe in Chennai that is run and managed by people with autism and other developmental disabilities.
If the aroma of freshly baked, wholesome muffins and biscuits does not draw you back, the warmth and friendliness of the staff at SAI Bakery at Palavakkam, Chennai, certainly well.
Started in 2013, SAI, which stands for Society All Inclusive, has acquired quite a name as a unique neighbourhood initiative for adults with developmental disabilities. The idea of starting this bakery, says founder Sumithra Prasad, came from her son Srinivasa, who has Asperger's syndrome and ADHD.
Soon after Srinivas finished his Class XII, he said he wanted to set up a bakery and name it Sai. He wanted this to be an initiative where his friends could also be equal partners. This is self-advocacy at its best. The main feature of this kind of an enterprise is that it's primarily parent-driven and provides a holistic environment for the young adult to socialise with his group and have a sense of belonging which is so needed in their adulthood. - Dr Sumithra Prasad, Founder, SAI Bakery
A sense of belonging and bonding that children/young adults with developmental disabilities are abruptly deprived of when they leave school. While there are a fair number of early intervention centres and schools for such children in India, there are barely any when they grow older.
"When the children grow into adults, they see that life around them is changing. The siblings have either got married or are studying abroad or working. Sometimes one of the parents passes away. Everything changes except the life of the adult once schooling is done. You must remember that when there is nothing to do physically, mentally and emotionally, there will be repercussions on the self-esteem", points out Sumithra, a counsellor, who is also the founder of DORAI Foundation, which supports SAI Bakery.
Convincing parents, however, of the benefits of such a support system was another challenge altogether. Many felt that the costs incurred on transporting their children to the bakery was a waste of time and money. "To motivate the other family members to wean the adult off their dependency is another ball game altogether. It's imperative that our adults have their own lives so when the parents are gone and they are shifted into a group home setup, they don't feel lost, says Sumithra.
Waheeda says that her daughter Shameena is a changed person since she started working at SAI Bakery three years ago. "Earlier Shamina would not even go to the toilet by herself, she always wanted me around, says Waheeda. Now this 36-year-old has become independent, traveling to the bakery all by herself every day.
There's Richard, 50, who feels happiest when he is at the centre. Richard is non-verbal but his expressions and gestures communicate whatever he feels. His friend Daniel, on the other hand, is very vocal about his needs. For 47-year-old Allan, the day at the centre is something to look forward to, while Babu, 45, takes his role as PRO of SAI Bakery very seriously. There's also Anand, always ready to burst into song. So what if he is not a professional singer. Give him a mike and watch him rock the stage.
The person behind it all, Srinivas, has been felicitated with many awards including the Astha Vakra Samman at Patna in 2017 and the Dhyeya Purti Puraskar in Mumbai in 2018.
Perhaps the biggest acknowledgement lies in how the initiative has grown organically with DORAI Foundation invited to set up similar initiatives across Puducherry, Ahmedabad, Ladakh and Punjab. In 2015, SAI Bakery was also chosen as one of the Best Practices for Rehabilitation of Adults with Different Disabilities by the National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD) in Chennai.
Among the people to have watched this initiative blossom is Lakshmi G Rajan, a retired Indian Bank employee. 'When I was still working, I would ensure that all the birthday cakes in office came from the bakery, says Rajan. "Now that I have retired, I go there to conduct prayer and yoga classes every day. They are like family.
Flavour and the friendly staff apart, the other USP is the food, which is prepared without butter, flour and egg, and includes some rather novel ingredients.
Raja Saravanan, an advertising executive, got hooked to SAI Bakery after he tasted the mint biscuits here. "I tasted mint biscuits here for the first time and absolutely loved them. Their cakes and muffins are wonderful too and they make them without sugar, so my parents love them too as they have diabetes."
Apart from the bakery, there is a SAI Creations centre which focuses on the expressive arts and tactile colour therapy concepts. A big part of this is recycling where plastic waste and paper is used to make paintings, etc. There is SAI Nursery as well, where adults with developmental disabilities grow different varieties of plants.
Considerable time is also spent on activism within the larger community, including schools and colleges. Sumithra is clear that this unit is a transit point from where they can go on to build independent lives and learn to stand on their own feet.