Café 55: The number one place for coffee, cake and community!

Cafe 55 street sign.
Cafe 55 street sign.

Right by Exeter Central Station, supported by a Roman Wall, sits a 120-year-old chapel. While this sounds like something out of The Da Vinci Code, the mystery is solved as soon as you walk through the front door. Cafe 55 feels more like someone’s living room than your standard café. There are books on the wall and the hypnotising smell of fresh chocolate brownies. It took a generous Sense supporter to leave a gift in their will before the café could start and, it has taken the centre manager, Jane, nearly 10 years to get it to where it is today.

Officially open in 2010, Café 55 started as a trial project funded by a supporter’s gift in their Will. Jane was hired to run the project and initially it was open one day a week. As it grew more popular, they expanded to three times a week. The idea behind Café 55 was to create a safe space for anyone (connected to Sense or not) to come, relax and eat. It was to provide work experience and life skills to people supported by Sense.

“The fundamental aim of Café 55 is to provide work experience and training to people who are deafblind, or who have complex disabilities, from our local community. We have people in doing work experience or training every day. The café environment is unique because of our patience and understanding of disabilities – everyone is welcome, there are no barriers to coming along and taking part.”

The gift in the Will catalysed the creation of an amazing social hub. Jane grew Café 55 with just one volunteer and their support worker. Unfortunately, the money from the gift was running out and Jane had a tough decision to make. Can Café 55 work on its own and make enough money to keep open, or will it have to shut down?

It was going to be tough, but Jane could see the value of the space. With support from the café chef, Terry, the volunteers and the number of people who walked through the café doors, she decided the café should stay open. When asked why she made that decision, the answer was simple.

“The café has had a real impact – one of our success stories is a young woman who was extremely shy when she started volunteering with us. She is profoundly deaf and over time her confidence really grew, both in herself and in Sense as an organisation and she decided to apply for a job with Sense. We were able to support her in applying for the job and she has now been a member of staff for a number of years, which is fantastic. The café was a stepping stone for her; we were patient and understanding and met her communication needs which helped her to grow.”

Another success story comes from a lady who began by volunteering at Café 55. Despite having a visual impairment and learning disability, she thrived in the café environment and was soon applying for paid positions elsewhere. Not only did she apply, but she was successful in the interview and is currently working for McDonalds. Jane always tells the people she works with to “never underestimate the power of pulling on a Café 55 t-shirt and being part of a team!”

But, Café 55 has not just been important to the people that work there. “We are also a central part of the local community – lots of our customers are disabled people who live locally and we have got to know them all. On Fridays, we run cooking lessons for people who live locally in Sense Supported Living Services.”

Café 55 has grown from strength to strength. Now open 5 days a week, the project has expanded into events organising and running a catering service.

“We always have a waiting list of people who want to work in the café to gain catering experience, so we have expanded and now provide external catering as well as bars for outdoor events. “

Recently Jane and the team organised a classic car and bike show as a fundraiser for Café 55. The event was a huge success but Jane has never forgotten the humble beginnings of the café which is a home to many.

Two men and a woman. A man in the middle is holding up a medal.

“None of this would have happened without that legacy – it kick started the café and without it we wouldn’t be here. Watching people gain confidence, self-esteem and learn to communicate is priceless – everyone leaves here happier.”

For more information about leaving a gift in your Will to Sense, or  if you have any questions about our work, please call us on 0300 330 9257 or email us at legacy@sense.org.uk

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