September 15, 2015
From maintaining local parks and shopping centres to running a local café, the members of Nundah Community Enterprises Co-operative (NCEC) are now employed long-term. Set up for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues, the co-op has successfully operated for members since 1998.
NCEC was formed by eight people with disabilities in their 20s, who had all been unemployed since they left school. Going through years of job placements and training, the eight experienced significant mental health and substance abuse issues. Despite their frustration, they were keen to make a useful contribution to their community.
With help and guidance of volunteers from the local Community Living Association, the members started a job club. With a very low skill base and no equipment, community volunteers were vital at this stage and in 1998 NCEC became a full co-operative.
“After approaching the Brisbane City Council, the members identified that they could maintain local infrastructure and parks, and from there the co-op grew,” says President Morrie O’Connor. “I think it was one of the first social procurements to happen in Australia.”
All the members pay a fee every year, they set the fee structure up and contribute to equipment, and they elect the board members, some of whom are people with disabilities. The co-op then set up a park maintenance division as well as a group to maintain the local neighbourhood shopping centres. NCEC also established a hugely successful café and catering service Espresso Train, which has now run for 14 years.
NCEC’s structure can accommodate people with different needs, including people who don’t well in groups, or who have difficulty taking instruction. Sole traders as diverse as fence painters, granola and biscuit makers, and car washers have been able to employ co-op members who may not find employment in other workplaces.
“One of the guys in our park group became a paraplegic, yet still wanted to continue as a member,” notes Morrie. ‘The co-op banded together to find a solution, and redesigned the kitchen so he could move into our café and continue working. That’s the gig! It’s about what we can do to do to maintain the membership and our commitment to the members.”
While many social enterprises want to expand, NCEC is proud to maintain its core commitment to its local members and to maintain their long-term employment. “A number of our original members were long-term unemployed, and are now eligible for long service leave. Many have been able to save money,” he says.
Despite its modest means, the NCEC has a large reach across Brisbane and sets an excellent example for bigger businesses to adapt and work with people with disabilities. “There is potential for people with particular skills to fit into business, rather than having a role which you ask people to fit into,” says Morrie. “A lot of businesses exclude people with disabilities from general society. If you were creative you could actually look at how you design the work around the person.”
“Although we’re small, the knock-on effects of long-term employment been huge. Once our members started work they said things like, ‘I can sleep at night, I’m taking my mental health medication, I’ve got stuff to talk about with people, I feel I’m giving back to community.”