Our heroes don’t wear capes, they wear masks and gloves; Our heroes don’t fight monsters, they fight HUNGER.
MITTI Café, which is run by people with disabilities, demonstrates all you need to have is a bit of courage and kindness.
27-year old Hemant Chand Kumar, an employee at MITTI has cerebral palsy and has been saving his salary every month so that one day he will build his own house. He was extremely disturbed looking at the current pandemic situation that forced people out of their livelihood, the homeless and the migrant workers. During one of our team meetings, he said, “Didi, Humko khana banana aatahai, hum khaana banayenge aur sabko khilaenge. Koi bhukha nahi rahega”: “We know how to cook; we will cook meals and serve people who need it. No one should stay hungry.” This was the start of the MITTI Karuna Meals, No Hunger Drive campaign.
The COVID crisis brought forward a new dimension of our team of wonderful adults with disabilities. While many employees live in our accommodation, several were able to return home during the pandemic. And so, with a team of 23 staff members, was launched the MITTI Karuna Meals campaign in March, during the lockdown. What began with 1,000 cooked meals daily has now grown to 6,000 a day crossing over 1 MILLION meals over 4.5 months to the economical underprivileged. The meals are cooked and served by our employees with disability (many of whom were rehabilitated from the street, trained and employed at MITTI), that enabled us to not just bring relief when millions were hungry, but also enabled us to create awareness about inclusion and abilities to the last mile, the very communities from which our employees come. We also expanded our work from Bengaluru to Kolkata and then Sundarbans, where Cyclone Amphan had caused massive destruction. The team has also helped migrant workers reach their hometown safely to unite with their families through migrant transport initiatives.
A re-negotiation of terms with donors and an ongoing online crowd funding campaign have helped MITTI Café achieve this. A part of the funding also provides for employees’ salaries and care. Through crowd funding MITTI reached the national and international community garnering over 8000 supporters in the process and have been featured in NDTV, The Hindu, Times of India, The Readers Digest and others and were able to create awareness about the abilities of persons with disability across a cross section of communities.
Each day, the relief work in Bengaluru and Kolkata starts at the café’s commercial kitchens. In Bengaluru, for instance, 30-something Gauri Shinde, who is blind and grew up in a shelter, is at the helm of affairs, cutting, chopping and assisting the cooks. She believes that we all need to think beyond the notion of ‘self’ and to work “together” as a country, a community.
“Safety above all” is a fundamental principle on which MITTI has been operating their MITTI Karuna Meal campaign. The team has a system in place—food stocks are kept in a sanitized space for 48 hours before they are used and later distributed with the help of local police and corporates. There is a lot of care taken to keep the items sanitized and safe.
Our employees with disabilities went out and interacted with the vulnerable communities and this created a huge awareness in the city. This also caught the attention of the media and we were extensively covered as “Corona Warriors”, where the once vulnerable and homeless are now serving the vulnerable.
Run by persons with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities, MITTI Cafe started by Alina Alam in 2017 , is a successful sustainable non-profit organisation with 13 operational cafes, which has gone beyond just enabling persons with disabilities. MITTI has been featured in the Forbes List of 30 under 30 and has been the recipient of NCPEDP Mindtree Helen Keller Award amongst others for its work. MITTI Café taps institutions for space, pro bono or for a nominal rent. As partners, these establishments sponsor setting up of the cafe; post that, it is self-sustaining. Most employees come from underprivileged backgrounds and are often sole (key) earning members. MITTI Café has employed over 116 PWDs and have provided experiential training to another 700 PWDs across Karnataka and West Bengal.
Like Hemant, MITTI has many such stories of phenomenal employees who are strong believers in the concept of empowering themselves to empowering others. Take the story of Hubli-based Kirti Kale, 25, who suffers from paraplegia and stunted growth. Three-and-a-half-years ago, she arrived for her interview crawling on all fours, since her family couldn’t afford a wheelchair. When she started training with MITTI, she couldn’t even hold a pen as her hands quivered. For the first few months, all we did was train her on how to hold a cup. Today, she is able to nimbly count money and manages the differently-abled team from her wheelchair. She has become a famous public figure in Hubli and is MITTI Cafe’s brand ambassador.
31-year-old Bhiaprappa has Dwarfism, is MITTI’s Training Executive. Being rejected in 7 job fairs for persons with disabilities and having no experience in client servicing today Bhairappa stands to be the favourite of all our customers and the lifeline of our team. From refusing to wear footwear to work (being barefoot even on the day of his interview) to now wearing a suit to events, he has come a long way.
MITTI also works with mothers of persons with disabilities we employ under a program called “MITTI Moms” (Currently there are 43 Mitti Moms). Under this program, MITTI trains them in health & safety standards, procurement, preparation and packaging of snacks and sweets that are made at their homes. We provide them a platform through MITTI Café to sell their savory and sweet snacks that help compliment their household incomes.
During COVID we emerged stronger, better and wiser. We learnt to understand the significance of how to pivot and deal with the changing situations. We are keen on our vision of providing opportunities of sustainable employment for persons with disabilities and create awareness about the cause of inclusion of disabilities. Even when the cities open up, MITTI plans to continue their MITTI Karuna Meal initiative with a focus on providing cooked food to the caretakers of migrant patients at hospitals. Our staff, once considered vulnerable, is out there helping others. If we all can inspire people to help in whatever capacity possible, we would consider our job well done.
MITTI Cafe is a non-profit organization.We are a chain of cafes that are completely managed by adults with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.
Our focus is economic independence and dignity for all. MITTI has been featured in the Forbes List of 30 under 30 and has been the recipient of NCPEDP Mindtree Helen Keller Award amongst others for its work. We create visible, tangible models of inclusion through interactive cafes and outreach initiatives that the community is inspired to take part in and be a part of. A low cost-high impact livelihood model that is sustainable, scalable and promotes inclusion.
During Covid-19 our employees with disabilities have been cooking and serving meals to daily wage earners and the homeless.They have served over 1 MILLION meals that have enabled us to serve the country,while creating awareness about the abilities of our warriors with disability.
About the Founder:
Alina Alam is the Founder of MITTI Cafe and a strong believer in Economic Independence and Dignity for all. She started MITTI Café, while still studying at University with an aim to create platforms for adults with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities to showcase their abundant potential for productive activity and create awareness for the cause of equal opportunities in employment.
Alina is a passionate Tedx speaker and has been featured in the Forbes Asia list of 30 under 30. She has won the Hellen Keller Award, Times of India, She Unlimited Award , Rotary Exemplar award , Microsoft Nipman Award, Tiecon Female Entrepreneur of the Year award amongst others.
She started her social entrepreneurship journey at the age of 23, while in college. The journey started with empty pockets, several failed sales attempts and rejections . Her journey of hope started at one café in a dilapidated tin shed with 2 employees with disability, to 13 cafes run by 116 adults with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disability, who have served over 6 million meals in 3 years is that of resilience and belief. Her journey as a social entrepreneur, scale and sustainability were influenced by 3 stories that changed her life – Nero, Kirti and the Starfish, shaped by the SDGs.
Prior to MITTI she started another NGO (SSRI) in Mumbai at the age of 18, while she was in her 1st year of college. She lead a similar outreach organisation (PAHAL) whilst doing her Masters from AzimPremji University in Bangalore . She is passionate about and have had the opportunity to motivate and engage youth in activities pertaining to livelihood, education, health, environment protection, human rights and women’s empowerment.
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