Catering to a peripheral community

Gvanim Ba’café provides many shades of assistance.

Gvanim Ba’café, nestled in northern Ashkelon (photo credit: ADI GILAD)
Gvanim Ba’café, nestled in northern Ashkelon
(photo credit: ADI GILAD)
The balloons, banners and other decorations were in place, spread throughout the immaculate dining area of the Gvanim Ba’café small catering hall and restaurant, nestled in a residential neighborhood of north Ashkelon. A party was taking place later that day for a local five-year-old whose family had rented the facility for the event.
While on the surface Gvanim (meaning “shades of color”) Ba’café might look like a typical coffee house or restaurant, it is anything but ordinary. That is because the 12 employees manning the facility – from the chefs, bakers and vegetable choppers working in the hall’s professional kitchen to those charged with setting up prior to an event or cleaning up afterwards – are all adults who live in the area and suffer or have suffered from various forms of mental illness.
Gvanim Ba’café is one of 40 projects run by the Gvanim Association. The Sderot-based organization works with various disadvantaged populations, mainly in the South, running programming with the goal of creating social change and integrating these groups of people into society. More than 2,500 individuals benefit from Gvanim programs.
Omer Karako is the energetic manager of the Gvanim Ba’café facility and oversees the project. He relocated his family to the South several years ago from the Tel Aviv area, along with a group of other socially conscious families, all good friends, seeking to make a difference in communities and populations in the periphery.
He says the goal of the coffee house project is twofold.
“This is a place that gives this population [the employees] a reason to get up in the morning. It provides them with the tools and the life skills to eventually go out and obtain employment in the ‘real world.’” Secondly, he says, “The goal is to disprove the stereotypes about people with mental illness. When people [who rent the facility for events] come in here, they can’t believe that people with mental illness are running this place. It’s about breaking stigmas.”
O.T. is a 50-year-old widower who worked throughout his life as a chef in catering halls. A father of two and grandfather of five, when his wife died suddenly, he had a mental breakdown. Doctors also diagnosed him with a form of schizophrenia.
But for more than a year, O.T. has been working at Gvanim Ba’café, involved with all aspects of the kitchen and the hall. From making pasta and sauces to helping set up the facility for the events, he says, “I am very happy here and very happy with the support I’m given.”
O.T. is also enrolled in rehabilitation courses at Gvanim’s Ashkelon Center occupational training facility, located next door.
On a tour of the center, Karako explains that 120 individuals with a wide spectrum of mental disabilities and illnesses come to Gvanim every day for workshops and courses to gain the skills that will enable them to integrate into a mainstream work environment. For example, workshop participants might learn about the various aspects of running a business, and then create art projects and crafts, which are then sold at fairs, allowing them to receive the sales profits.
According to Gvanim’s website, the Ashkelon Center’s occupational frameworks “provide not only on-the-job training and experience but also help participants acquire skills needed to succeed in their personal lives.”
Back in the kitchen at Gvanim Ba’café, 62-yearold F.C. is getting ready to make pizzas for that day’s party. Whether it’s pizza, bread or other baked goods, she says that she usually starts her work as a baker very early in the morning.
After suffering from severe postpartum depression following the birth of one of her children years ago, she was deemed no longer fit to be a suitable caretaker. However, after years of recovery and rehabilitation, her children were given the opportunity to return home. She now has grandchildren as well.
F.C. says that working at Gvanim Ba’café “provides me with a good feeling, being alongside others who are similar to me.”
Exiting the kitchen so that the staff can prepare for the party, Karako says that sometimes the place hosts up to three events on any given day, keeping the workers who arrive from morning to night in various shifts extremely busy.
But what is the draw for Ashkelon residents to rent this facility for events as opposed to a mainstream hall or restaurant? Karako says it varies from family to family. He explains that some book the space because it is less expensive than other places, but others specifically want Gvanim Ba’café “because they know that they are giving back to the community.”
While Karako says that Gvanim Ba’café and the other programs in the organization receive funding from the Health Ministry and the National Insurance Institute, the café runs as a business, charging for events in order to operate and to pay the employees. By no means, Karako asserts, are those who work there volunteers. “They get paid here.”
Ultimately, though, Karako explains, the goal is to get his employees out into the mainstream workforce in the restaurant or perhaps other industries.
But he stresses that when they are ready, his employees are not simply sent out alone and blindly.
“When they join the workforce, Gvanim provides a counselor, a social worker, to go to work with them until they get their feet wet,” he says.
Karako has many success stories of those who are doing well at their jobs after starting at the café. On the other hand, he acknowledges that not everyone makes it.
“In those cases, people are here with us longer term. For them, this is home.”
He adds, “Since there is always a high turnover here, with many changes, we [whose responsibility it is to prepare and host events] have to be ready for the unexpected. The training that goes on here is constant.”
As the kitchen and hall are buzzing with workers in full preparation mode, Karako imparts one final message about the value of his project: “It’s important to be aware of the fact that what happened to these people – the breakdowns – can happen to anyone.”