An innovative ‘shopping mall’, which aims to help young people with learning difficulties gain work experience and improve social skills, is open for business.
The Aspire Vocational Centre, at St Mary’s Special School and College in Bexhill, is believed to be the only project of its kind in the country.
It took 18 months to transform the classrooms into what resembles a small village, with a car wash, hairdresser, general store, bank and a pop up shop.
The 16 to 19 year olds are rotated round the different businesses before choosing the skills they are the most skilled in, but there is one stand out favourite – the cafe.
As well as serving tea to staff and visitors, students also make the staff sandwiches, meaning the cafe is also very much a staff favourite too.
Jonathan Smalldon, fundraising and marketing manager at St Mary’s, said: “The purpose is to enable particularly college students to gain life and social skills they would not get otherwise.
“It’s to support them in terms of getting employment as well as supporting social development.”
Although Aspire is not yet open to the public, it is starting to take bookings from community groups who would like to come in and use the facilities. Students will work as receptionists and take the bookings themselves.
Naomi White, who is in charge of the vocational centre, said: “Because we are making it like a work environment, we asked them to apply for the jobs and go for interviews, as well as it’s more realistic.”
Sharon Thompson, vocational cafe support, added: “They said they feel they really are at work.
“They love wearing their uniforms, it makes them feel smart and grown up.
“They have really embraced the challenge of it.”
Coming soon will be the St Mary’s launderette, with washing machines installed and ready to go, and plans for a print room and photographic studio are in the pipeline.
Consultant principal Amanda Clugston said: “We have high aspirations for our children and we want them to have it for themselves.”
She added: “In local authorities there is less and less money to fund placements after 19.
“So the more youngsters we can get ready to take their place in employment, the better really.”
St Mary’s is keen to hear from community groups which would like to visit Aspire and businesses who could offer support to the project or apprenticeships to students.
To find out more about how to get involved with the Aspire Vocational Centre, call St Mary’s on 01424 730740.
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