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Pandemic provided learning opportunity for cafe team

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By Donald Turvill
Dumfries and West
Pandemic provided learning opportunity for cafe team
Alison Ball, autism awareness officer at the Usual Place

TRAINEES and staff at a community cafe in Dumfries have been using the lockdown as a period of growth and learning.

The Usual Place provides training, education and employability skills to young people with additional suport needs.

And like everything else, the initiatives run by the enterprise were halted last March.

“In the first few weeks of lockdown I think everybody was in a very similar situation in that we didn’t know how long it was going to last for, we didn’t know what it was going to entail, I think there was a lot of confusion,” said Alison Ball, autism awareness officer at the Usual Place.

An inkling that the pandemic was here for the long-haul led Alison to the conclusion that staff needed to think-up “a longer term strategy” on how to stay engaged with the youngsters.

She added: “We were having weekly check-ins with the staff that were furloughed and the idea was that we should be having these with the trainees as well.

“The first thing we identified in some is that their digital skills weren’t what they could be. There were a lot of people familiar with using the internet on their phone, but when they went onto a laptop to use something like Teams or Zoom, that was difficult. We identified that was going to be a really key importance, that we actually took time to show how to use the software. Everybody was struggling, everybody didn’t know what was going on and we needed a bit of familiarity— that was seeing me every week.”

Soon enough, users were clued up on how to work emerging softwares that have became pivotal for communication during lockdown.

Alison said once trainees were confident they discovered a “real passion for teaching”.

“They were learning it really fast, and were desperate to share that skill with other people,” she added. “They were teaching not only their peers but they would teach the staff to do it as well, and they then taught their parents, siblings and friends how to use it.

“I had only started five weeks before we went into lockdown, so I didn’t really know the trainees that well at this point—and we got to know each other a lot more over this.”

Trainees at the Academy Street cafe also explained how gaining new digital skills have helped them through a difficult time.

Mary Rankine said: “After having the training in how to use Zoom I have used it on other activities such as music and training. If I never had the training I wouldn’t have taken part in the other activities that I enjoy.”

James Roydes added: “I loved being on Zoom because I had someone to talk to through the challenging times. I felt more happy and more independent.”

Jack Morrison said: “I looked forward to the Zoom calls because I got to meet my friends online.”

Meanwhile, Skye Hughes partnered with Alison in a presentation to Inspiring Scotland with representatives from the Scottish Executive and other organisations from the Understanding Autism portfolio.

Skye commented: “I was very nervous before I did it but also excited. It went really well, and I want to do more of it. I got to speak to new people, and it felt good. I have learned that I can do more than I think I can. I love doing challenges and pushing myself in the world.”

The Autism Team at Inspiring Scotland were impressed by her presentation and Skye is now taking part on an online leadership course with them.