Chocolate Memories helping to mould trainees
Adults with autism are given valuable work experience and training opportunities at a unique social enterprise in Co Down.
Moneyreagh-based chocolate factory Chocolate Memories was established in 2010 by Belfast charity group Autism Initiatives.
People with autism spectrum conditions are employed as trainee staff to hand-make Belgian chocolates using only high quality ingredients.
Products for corporate clients and wedding favours constitute the bulk of orders, while workshops giving members of the public a chance to experience chocolate making are also run on a regular basis. All profits are reinvested back into the business to fulfil the social aims and objectives.
Since the enterprise began four years ago, 16 trainees have been through the scheme, and former trainees have used the work experience gained at the enterprise to secure employment elsewhere.
Project manager Amy Dixon said that placements last "as long as someone is gaining something from it".
"Placements typically involve one to two days' work per week and they can be long or short-term," she said.
"Trainees begin by gaining health and safety and hygiene certificates, but the placement takes as long as they need. One individual has been with us from the start. As long as someone is still learning and enthusiastic we encourage them to stay.
"Its not just about the chocolate making. The placements are here to give them confidence. Travelling independently up here is a big thing for them, as is answering the phone and dealing with customers. "The main thing is developing their confidence and social skills.
"Coming out to food and craft fairs to sell to the public is not easy for people with autism and many individuals would have shied away from that at the beginning.
"But the training here helps them get to a place where eventually they can deliver workshops with members of the public."
Ms Dixon said that while the enterprise was not yet self-supporting, it was growing every year and they were currently recruiting.
"The team love experimenting with new flavours and our favourite and busiest time of the year is the lead up to Christmas when we get to develop an exciting new range".
The enterprise works with the NOW project, Stepping Stones and the Orchardville Society, all supported-employment social enterprises designed to help people find placements and employment.