Jasmine Dorion, manager, and Robert Welbourne, a longtime employee at COCO Café, offer coffee, doughnuts, meals and more for patrons of the restaurant in Cedar. COCO Café was voted Best Community-Minded Business as well as Best Catering Company in this year’s Best of the City survey. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Best of the City: Cafe helps build sense of community

COCO Café voted Best Community-Minded Business in its 10th year of operation in Cedar

A south Nanaimo café that has been providing supported employment for people with developmental disabilities for 10 years is receiving kudos from the community.

COCO Café has been voted the first winner of the News Bulletin’s new Best of the City award for Best Community-Minded Business.

“It’s very, very special and encouraging for us to receive this award from our community and we appreciate every person who took the time to vote and people who take the time to write us reviews on the internet and people who come in and support us in person at the café or order our catering services,” said Sydni Romine, COCO Café director of development and HR.

The café was founded in 2011 by four area families who had children with developmental disabilities who were aging out of the school system. The families determined that a café would provide a visible opportunity for their children to have employment and socialization experience.

Romine has been with COCO Café since the beginning. She said over the course of a decade it’s provided more than 55,000 hours of supported employment for its workers and has since expanded into catering, built a commercial kitchen and this year it became a registered charity.

Over the years in the face of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Romine said “we always kept our mission in mind and that propelled us forward.”

“There’s only going up from here,” she said. “I think that we’ve proven ourselves in the community to be an asset for people with diverse abilities and I think that we’ll be able to continue on our mission for many, many years.”

Romine said that while there are other organizations in the community that provide paid positions for people with developmental disabilities, “I don’t think anyone is doing it at quite the level that we are.”

Romine said the employees are able to grow and develop their skills at COCO Café and those experiences have had lasting effects on their personal lives.

“We have one woman who is an alumna of our program who has Asperger’s syndrome and she got her driver’s licence, she recently moved on to getting a full-time position with the government, she just bought her first home,” Romine said. “So those are the success stories that really keep us going.”

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