Mel Cooper, manager of the Westbury Community Shop and Cafe, shares why they have started working with a local special needs school, offering work experience to students

Earlier this year, we were approached by Furze Down School in Winslow, and asked if we would offer regular work experiences sessions to a group of their students. One of our regular customers, Thomas (aged 19) who attends the school has been coming to us every Saturday morning for cake. He enjoys his weekly visits so much, he would tell his teachers all about us. His school then contacted us to find out more about what we were doing for Thomas, and we agreed to provide work experience for some of their other students as well.

Since February, Thomas and a number of his friends from school spend a couple of hours with us every Thursday morning. The students have a range of special needs including autism, Down syndrome, speech and language difficulties and medical needs such as epilepsy, and they do a number of roles in the shop; taking sandwich orders in the café, operating the till, making up bags of sweets and helping with stock checks. One of the young ladies, Connie, 19, loves tidying, so after her shift, all our shelves are immaculate, with all the labels lined up and facing the right way – they look brilliant!

As a community business, we are here to serve the needs of the community, so we are absolutely delighted to have Thomas and his friends working with us every week. Whilst setting up the placement, one of the teachers had said currently only three businesses in the whole of Buckinghamshire offer group work experience placements to their students. For me, this is what sets us apart as a community business. Yes, it takes a fair amount of planning and work to facilitate these visits, but it’s so worth it. We’re really helping these young people to develop their confidence and become more independent, whilst also developing skills which will hopefully help them find a job.

The feedback that we’ve had from our customers and the wider community has also been really positive. I would definitely recommend other community businesses consider offering similar placements. For us it’s really important to be inclusive and make sure that our Westbury Shop and Café works for everyone who needs it.

Thomas’s teacher, Lynsey Fleeting said, “We are so grateful to Mel and her team at the Westbury Community Shop and Café – the difference it has made to our students has been amazing. Some of our students have progressed far beyond our expectations, they have grown so much in confidence that they are now ready to move onto individual work placements, which will then hopefully lead to a paid job.

Unlock the potential of young people in your local area and help your community business to thrive by engaging, employing and training young people. Find out more about Plunkett’s #IWill project, supported by The Dulverton Trust.

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