Employment for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, or E4PID, is empowering persons with intellectual disabilities to gain soft skills, gather work experience, and help them get employed.
On a rainy afternoon last year, I found myself in a quaint part of the island, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but not quite detached from civilisation. I was at Sprout Hub, an urban farm and community space nestled within the former Henderson Secondary School building. Owned by social enterprise City Sprouts, the hub leases out greenhouses and spaces to hobbyists, agriculture entrepreneurs and community farmers who are looking to do “city farming in the heartland”. I was here to visit one such group of community farmers—Mushroom Buddies.
An initiative by a local co-operative Employment for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities (E4PID), Mushroom Buddies occupies two container lots at Sprout Hub. Wholly run by volunteers and staff with special needs, the team at Mushroom Buddies grows, harvests, and sells organic and nutrient-rich oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms.
“The volunteers are mostly parents of the staff with intellectual disabilities,” said Bernard Yu, 56, treasurer and board member of E4PID. Founded in 2011 by parents of children with intellectual disabilities, E4PID trains these special needs individuals and empowers them with the relevant skills to gain employment.
20-year-old Frasier Lee is a staff employed under the initiative. Having graduated from special education school Rainbow Centre and then joining Mushroom Buddies a year ago, Frasier is diagnosed with autism and global development delay, and while on the job, he remains reserved but diligent. “I like harvesting, packing and trimming,” he told Our Grandfather Story. “I love seeing mushrooms grow. They make me happy inside.”
If anything, E4PID endeavors to promote an environment where staff can thrive in a community of love and care. “Persons with special needs may find it challenging interacting with their co-workers,” said Bernard. Not all persons with special needs can express their feelings and thoughts well. The inability to do so may create a divide in the workspace. Volunteers, thus, play a huge part in building an empathetic and considerate ecosystem to nurture members within the co-operative. “(Persons with special needs) are not ignorant. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t be keen to come to work, just like what we would feel as well.”
“They shouldn’t be sidelined. They need to feel belonged too.”
Of the two containers, only one of them is used to grow the mushrooms. As such, the retrofitted container, which is sponsored by waste management company Blue Planet, becomes the farm, which is air-conditioned to keep the crops chilled. In it, bags of substrate rest atop the shelves of several extensive industrial racks. These substrates have been inoculated with mushroom mycelium and contain rubber wood sawdust and rice bran. In the other container, the volunteers and staff would pack the harvested mushrooms for distribution.
“The harvest varies every month. On good months, we can harvest over 100kg of mushrooms,” Bernard gushed. On average, Mushroom Buddies produces between 4kg and 5kg a day.
Staff members who work at Mushroom Buddies are paid hourly. They also work around short pockets of time of approximately 2-3 hours. Their scope of work runs the gamut from harvesting and trimming off the industrial racks to packaging the mushrooms. At times, the team at E4PID would also attend farmers’ markets to sell their harvests. I learnt that Sprout Hub organises monthly farmers’ market on the first Saturday of each month. Interestingly, the co-operative has also started supplying some of their mushrooms to wholesalers and dining establishments, such as Little Farms at Tanglin Mall, YhingThai Palace at Purvis Street, and Open Farm Community, as well.
For the uninitiated, a co-operative is a membership-based business entity that operates on the values of self-help and mutual help. Co-operatives are owned, run, and controlled by their members. In E4PID’s case, their members comprise people with intellectual disabilities, parents of children with intellectual disabilities, and advocates who believe in the cause. E4PID is an affiliate co-operative of the Singapore National Co-operative Federation, which helps interested parties set up a co-operative and promote the Singapore Co-operative Movement. “A co-operative, to me, is about raising a community,” said Bernard. “As a co-op member, you can contribute your ideas, share your network, or volunteer your time.
Bernard, who has a 17-year-old daughter with autism, explained that working with persons with special needs can be an intriguing experience. Not a day is spent without laughter, he said. “Hong An, who is one of our key employees and has Down Syndrome, can be quite humorous,” he beamed as he introduced me to the 37-year-old employee who gave me a wave.
Mr Yu said: “They are all very personable.”
A version of this story was published in the Singapore National Co-operative Federation’s newsletter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.