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A peek inside the Helping Hands Café

With several cafés already established along Taft Avenue, Lasallians won’t be running out of places to get their first latte in the morning, cram that research paper, or just chill out during long breaks any time soon.

But for those looking for a different kind of fix, there’s a coffee shop across the street that goes beyond satisfying your caffeine cravings. Home to baristas and servers who are members of the special needs community, the Helping Hands Café, located at Unit 148 Manila Residences Tower II, hopes to warm up souls 24/7, one cup of coffee at a time.


The hands behind Helping Hands

Having been exposed to people with health impairments from a young age, Helping Hands Café owner Lorie Anthony Ortiaga, or simply Teacher Kim, knows what it is like to struggle. Kim had a deaf-mute best friend and two blind classmates. Kim’s late Aunt, who was very close to his family, also struggled with mental retardation. These experiences kindled the fire of his passion to help.

In college, he pursued a degree in BS Special Education major in Teaching Children with Hearing Impairments. Afterwards, he handled tutoring and teaching in various institutions in Antique. He would later on move to Manila and get offered a position in Reach International School in Makati.

He shares his challenging yet fulfilling experience in Reach. ”I was the only teacher who handled all special children from academic functions 1 to 4. They were almost 30 and I had to meet them every day.”

What’s more, he was handling students with autism who are known to have poor receptive skills and anger management. “I wrestle with them, then they punch me, they spit on me, they bite me,” he expresses his hardships, still with a smile. “Wala akong araw na walang suntok.

Although he is a gentle soul, he shares that he still needed to project a certain degree of firmness, saying that when children with autism are being taught, they need to be afraid enough to follow their teachers. Despite this exhausting method of teaching, he was able to carry out his tasks through his dedication and love for his students.

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“Teacher, can I borrow your helping hands?”

Just last August 2015, Kim had a mild heart attack, and was later diagnosed with lateral ischemia.

Because of his sensitive condition, he could no longer go back to teaching special children. The diagnosis took its emotional toll on him. “My dreams were shattered,” explains Kim.

Despite this huge obstacle, he still chose to look at the brighter side of things. “Maybe God has better plans for me. Maybe God wanted me to serve not just 30 special students, but a lot more.” This became a turning point in his life, when he eventually decided to move on from his teaching career to put up the café.

As Teacher Kim puts it, the café aims to dispel the stigma towards people with special needs. “Stereotyping makes the barrier [even] larger and wider,” Kim shares, as he explains that besides the impairments that people with special needs have, they are no different from and just as capable as regular people.

Inside, they assume the typical roles of servers, baristas, and cook. One of the servers, fondly called Kuya Tony Boy, a 57-year-old deaf-mute, takes orders from the customers by using sign language, or by simply letting them pick through the menu list. Sign language posters are spread around to encourage interaction and help customers communicate with servers like Kuya Tony Boy, fulfilling one the café’s main objectives of improving the social skills of the special needs community.

Although it’s relatively less spacious than most coffee shops around, the cozy ambience brought about by white lights, as well as table-top board games, still make the café a suitable hangout place for students. There are also post-it notes where customers can write about anything they want to say to the special community. Kim also notes that they make sure the food is budget-friendly for students.

The interior design was actually conceptualized by a 7-year-old child with autism. He explains that the child wanted the mural at the side wall to depict the intertwined lives of regular people and special people. While the black shape represents the lives of regular people, the red paper hearts and drawings interspersed represent the light that special people can bring to regular people’s lives once the barrier between the two has been overcome.

When asked how he was able to put up the Helping Hands Café at the age of 24, Kim explains, “I just presented the business proposal to investment sites.” Part of the success of this startup is also due to the network of people he made while he was at Reach International School. Later on, this allowed him to connect with other people and foundations who shared the same passion for the special people community.


Breaking stereotypes

Misconceptions about people with special needs remain prevalent despite the rising number of institutions that aim to raise awareness among the public. Often, this leads to stereotypes and crippling derogatory labels thrown at the special needs community. Breaking these stereotypes is precisely what Helping Hands Café is doing.

For instance, Kim reveals that aside from serving at Helping Hands, Kuya Tony Boy also works as a Barangay Kagawad, a Deaf International Coalition Officer, and a devoted member of the Parañaque Deaf Association. With all of these under his belt, Kuya Tony Boy proves that his lack of something we take for granted is never a hindrance to achieving his goals.

Although technically, the SPED (special education) community is limited to people with health impairments, Kim would like to believe that those suffering from social exclusion and different forms of poverty should also be part of the community. In fact, two other members of his staff are out-of-school youth.

Rena helps man the café as a server and by tending the cashier. Pau, on the other hand, serves as the barista. Kim saw a glimmer of hope in these two and he believed that he could do something to uplift them. Kim supports their plans to continue their studies, with Rena eyeing a degree in IT, while Pau is planning to take up Culinary Arts.


The passion to serve

For Teacher Kim, the staff is just like an extension of family. They live together in a condominium unit above the café and spend the 24-hour shift together, either in the unit or in the café itself.

Although there is a big difference in managing a business with regular people as staff in comparison to special people, Teacher Kim remains very patient and helpful. He even learned and adjusted to Filipino sign language to communicate better. He also helps his staff in their service of customers, not afraid of getting his hands dirty.

Teacher Kim is a defender of the people in the special community, along with the out-of-school youth. It is empowering to see these people with learning impairments doing things and proving themselves to detractors who doubt their abilities.

At the end of the day, Teacher Kim reminds the Lasallian community that every day is important and is God’s gift, and that we are lucky to have many differences that set each of us apart and make us stronger. Finally, he firmly challenges all people, special or regular, to take care of one another, as God has done for us.

Cirilo Cariga

By Cirilo Cariga

Eternity Ines

By Eternity Ines

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