The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024

Campaign to save South Shields cafe

Sara Jane March looks at the people who would lose out if SeaChange — a not-for-profit organisation providing sustainable employment for those with autism and learning disabilities — is not saved
  • Social Media drive to raise money after rocketing costs threatens cafe and arts centre’s future
  • Workers and users tell of the special place SeaChange is and their fears if it closes
  • Crowdfunder sets £20,000 target to keep the facility running
The SeaChange team is facing an uncertain future

South Shields café and arts centre, SeaChange, is at risk of closure after energy bills and supplier costs rocketed by up to 400% and 100% respectively.

The venue is run by autistic and neurodivergent staff. Manager, Sarah Farrell, has launched a social media campaign to save SeaChange after the spiralling costs placed its future under threat.

Sarah set up the not-for-profit organisation in 2017 to provide sustainable employment for those with autism and learning disabilities.

She said: “Without support, we are worried about the future of SeaChange. It’s just impossible for us to pass such a high increase in our costs onto our loyal customers as they too are trying to survive the cost-of-living crisis.”

Sarah Farrell, manager of SeaChange

Jayne has also worked at SeaChange on Ocean Road, South Shields since the beginning and explained why she decided to create a comic to help try to save it.

“When I heard the news about SeaChange struggling and potentially shutting down, I was really upset,” said Jayne. “I express myself through art and created the Save SeaChange comic because SeaChange is such a special place. This is one of the best working places ever. It’s so important we are able to keep this safe place as if it closes, it would upset a lot of the staff and I think a lot of customers as well.”

Sarah said: “From the ups and downs to finally finding a sense of happiness and safety Jayne’s  story is exactly why we want to #saveseachangeCIC.”

You can see a video of Jayne on Facebook here

The Save SeaChange comic reflects Jayne’s creativity

For those living with autism in the South Shields area, SeaChange is a pathway into employment and tackles isolation for those living with a learning disability.

Transferable skills are taught including effective communication, teamwork and time management with staff also studying for accredited qualifications, such as Food Hygiene.

“All monies received through our membership schemes help towards paying for our overheads and ongoing training costs for our neurodiverse staff and volunteers,” explained Sarah. “Recent times have been challenging and, like so many others, we too have felt the impact.”

Bryn, 31, also took to social media to share what SeaChange means to him.

He said: “It’s important to me because I have made a lot of new friends. Access to Work has helped my life so much for the better. SeaChange makes me feel safe and I can be myself.

“If SeaChange does shut, we will have nowhere else to work because I feel no other place will accept people with disabilities and additional needs. Please keep us in mind and save our café.”

Bryn has made multiple new friends through SeaChange

The social media campaign to #saveseachange has started to gain attention from the public with one lady commenting: “This is a vital service that works to enable our young people with autism and disability to use their talents in the hospitality industry and CANNOT BE LOST!”

The vegetarian café doubles up as an arts venue offering support to local creatives — from DJs to musicians and artists. There is also a volunteer-led neurodivergent social club for over-16s run by a  volunteer called Lexie.

Volunteer Lexie believes SeaChange provides a safe, inclusive space

Lexie, 28, has been a SeaChange volunteer since its opening too and said: “I think it provides a safe, inclusive space to grow and learn at your own pace. Most importantly, I think it is an example. An example to others that it is possible to hire people with autism and, not only is it possible, it can have amazing benefits to any workplace. 

“It’s like a movement. If we can do it with an entire neurodiverse team then what is there to prevent every employer from actively seeking or hiring at least one neurodivergent staff member. We may not always get it right, but we are showing it is possible. With the right support and the right efforts made to remove barriers — it is very possible. This is why our tagline is: ‘See the Able not the Label’.”

Sarah explained SeaChange does not receive any local authority funding but the staff team are supported by the Government’s Access to Work scheme.

The 45-year-old manager has been overwhelmed by the out-pouring of support to save SeaChange on social media in such a short space of time.

Volunteer Nicole showcasing the very best of the SeaChange menu

Sarah said: “We can’t begin to tell you how grateful we are for the support you’ve shown us over the years — it truly means the world to us. Our cafe has flourished so far largely due to the support of our community. 

“The response we’ve received on social media from our #SaveSeaChangeCIC campaign has been amazing. Every comment, like and share on social media means the world to us. All we ask is for people to continue showing their support by coming in to visit us, or by telling their friends and family about us and what it is we do.

“Businesses can also support us by attending one of our business workshops. These empower individuals to become captains of change within their organisations, driving meaningful transformation and building a culture of diversity, equality, and inclusion.”

SeaChange has taken the difficult decision to offer a reduced menu from Saturday February 3 and to close on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Sarah added: “This decision was not made lightly but it is a necessary step as we navigate these difficulties.”

The MetroCentre, brainchild of Sir John Hall, cost £180m and was Europe’s largest shopping centre when opened by Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley in 1986

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