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Belfast coffee shop brewing up brighter future for young ex-offenders going straight

By Joanne Sweeney

Published 01/12/2015

Roger Warnock (centre) with ex-offenders Sean (left) and Marco employed at The Thinking Cup coffee shop, Lisburn Road, Belfast
Roger Warnock (centre) with ex-offenders Sean (left) and Marco employed at The Thinking Cup coffee shop, Lisburn Road, Belfast

Former prisoners convicted of armed robbery and assault are among those serving customers at a coffee shop in south Belfast, it has emerged.

The 12 ex-offenders are successfully employed in a unique social enterprise business on the Lisburn Road that aims to give young men and women a chance to turn their fortunes around.

The main stipulation for those looking to work in The Thinking Cup is that they have to be young parents aged between 18 and 24 who want a better life.

It is hoped that providing employment and work skills over a year will help break the cycle of offending for them - and their children in the future.

"Sixty per cent of kids who have parents who are offenders will grow up to offend themselves," Roger Warnock said.

"Also, the cost of jailing somebody is £70,000 to £100,000 a year, so it makes sense to try and keep young people from reoffending."

The businessman from Saintfield set up the coffee shop and bookstore with co-founder Paul McMinn last December before fully opening in May.

Both won fellowships from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, and Roger also recently won the prestigious Clore Fellowship Award.

All the proceeds from the coffee shop and bookstore are ploughed back into the business to help the young parents, with the aim of being completely self-financing within three years.

The novel idea is going down well with customers, who often openly talk to the staff about their previous experiences.

Two of the ex-prisoners working in the coffee shop are 21-year-olds Marco from Dungannon and Sean from Belfast, who are there four days a week. The fathers-of-one are no longer with their partners but maintain good relations with them and see their children regularly.

Marco spent two-and-a-half years in prison for his role in an armed robbery at the age of 17.

It is something he now sincerely regrets.

He attempted to apologise to the victim - who was not seriously physically hurt - through the restorative justice programme, but she refused to meet him.

Providing for his two-year-old son and the hope of a better future for them both is the reason why he leaves home at 6am in order to be at the coffee shop.

"If you had said to me three years ago that I would be working at a coffee shop, I wouldn't have believed you as I wasn't that sort of guy," he said.

"I was young and stupid and got involved in the wrong crowd.

"I'm doing this as I want to provide for my son, as I don't want to end up in prison again.

"Prison can make or break you, it's tough, and I knew that my time inside was enough for me."

Sean started work at The Thinking Cup just five days after he left jail, where he had served three-and-a-half months on a common assault charge.

His ex-girlfriend went into labour on the day he was released, and a day-and-a-half later he became a father to a baby girl who's now five months old.

He said: "Knowing that I had a job to go to when I left prison was great as Marco and I were interviewed for the jobs before we left prison.

"We wouldn't have got a job anywhere else.

"I've come in here to provide for my little girl and to keep out of prison, as I can't provide for my child if I'm inside.

"I would advise anyone else in jail to keep your head down, stay away from drugs and work hard."

Both now hope to secure work and further training when they leave the cafe.

Belfast Telegraph

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