Cooinda Terang and The Little Acorn Cafe

For a great cappuccino, you need to head to The Little Acorn Café.

It is Friday lunch time in the small country town of Terang, Victoria, and I am happily seated at a table by the window in The Little Acorn Cafe. While enjoying a delicious cappuccino, I look around at the fresh white walls, wooden floors and the vintage chairs and dining tables set before a fireplace. I hear happy and relaxed conversations all around me. One of the staff comes over, and with a big smile, introduces herself and asks if there is anything else I need. I smile back: this is a warm and welcoming place to be.

While The Little Acorn offers a tasty and healthy light-lunch menu, spoil-yourself homemade-slice options, and fantastic, friendly service, what sets this cafe apart is the story behind how it came to life.

Now a vibrant part of community life, The Little Acorn was once the long-time dream of carers and staff of Cooinda Terang, a disability services provider for adults and their families in the surrounding communities. In line with the Values and Mission Statement of Cooinda, the café is a social training opportunity for its residents and participants. Cooinda staff work alongside participants, supervising them in a range of hospitality tasks, including preparation, plating up of food, making coffee, operating the till, waiting tables, setting up and cleaning up.

‘The café is all about giving participants the chance of working in and maintaining a place in their own community,’ says dedicated café manager and long-time staff member at Cooinda, Jenny O’Keeffe. ‘This is all about participants feeling valued and respected within their community and having a chance to do the same things other people do.’

Cooinda’s participants were enthusiastic about the café. To ensure opportunities were available to all, a roster was developed, and participants given the flexibility to choose their activities.

As part of their training, all staff and participants have attained a Level 1 certificate in food safety and food handling. Tasks are assigned based on what participants can do, not on what they can’t do. Once a participant is able to do a task, they are given an opportunity to try something new. ‘No greater importance is placed on one role over another,’ says Jenny. ‘The focus is on increasing personal and living skills in the kitchen, as well as their social skills working with customers of the café.’

The Little Acorn café came to life through the efforts of the Cooinda team and the Cooinda Board of Management. The idea for the café had been on the drawing board for some time but when the lease on the Maternity and Child Health Services building came up, they could turn the idea into a reality. With the full backing of the Board, an application was made to council for the lease and upgrade of the premises. ‘The Corangamite Shire have been very supportive of the initiative that provides an opportunity for Cooinda participants to have valued roles within their community,’ says Cooinda CEO, Janice Harris. ‘We have only had positive feedback about the food and hospitality but also the “vibe” of the café as being a positive and welcoming atmosphere to be in.’ In a generous move, the local council agreed to waive the rent for the first year of the lease, helping to offset start-up costs. This has been particularly helpful, as no assisted funding is available for the project.

Local businesses such as the Terang Op shop, Terang Co-Op and Western District Employment Access have also made significant donations toward establishment costs, giving the café its initial boost. Since opening in mid-December 2016, The Little Acorn is run as any other café business is run, relying on trade and sales and a strong customer base. Being situated in the main street next to the local playground, and with an abundance of passing trade, business has been picking up, and things are looking good. ‘This wouldn’t have happened without the support of the Terang locals,’ Jenny says, adding that the generous spirit of the community has made all the difference.

The strong links with the community extend into the retail space set aside for craft work and locally-made produce, and the works of local artists hang on the walls, all for sale. Students from the local high schools studying hospitality also have an opportunity to work at the café, gaining valuable social and operations experience in a café environment.

‘It is wonderful to see the sense of community here at the café,’ says Jenny. ‘The customers have come to know the participants personally, there is a real community connection. I’m so proud to be a part of this café and this community, and the opportunities given to our participants.

‘They have got their wings and they are flying.’

it’s not you, it’s me…me and my amygdala.

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So I rock up to my barista and order my large cap, and toast with a tiny bit of vegemite. The coffee here is perfect, the service outstanding, and as I glance at my watch, I don’t know whether to sigh or smirk about being on time for my meeting. I choose to sigh happily and move out of everyone’s way.

At about the 8-minute mark, hipster-suity-groover guy rocks up and orders his coffee and same toast as me. Yes, that’s right. You can see where this is going. My happy barista man calls my name – ‘Someone’s toast is ready!’ I turn to grab my things, move back toward the counter – and before Hipster-Suity Guy’s coffee is even ready, he casually reaches over AND GRABS MY TOAST. Seconds later – wait, I’m not finished shouting: SECONDS LATER, HE HAS HIS COFFEE, THEN HE’S GONE!!!!

To know me is to concede that on a good day, parts of my nature are loveable, but today you’re pretty sure how shit is going to go down. But what if I surprise you? That’s right: things have changed and we are now familiar with the Amygdala Impact.

No matter our individual, or even collective thoughts on how we’ve evolved, we can count on the amygdala to keep us in touch with our Inner Primitive. Or as I affectionately think of him: my Inner Cyberdyne Systems series T-800 Model 101 Amygdala Terminator. The T-800 Amygdala controls the fight or flight instinct, scanning the environment for risk and danger five times a second – that’s right, FIVE TIMES A SECOND – and [analysing it through the super-high tech, military-grade, optical-screen of death] generates cortisol and adrenalin as required. Saving our lives since the Dawn of Man, the amygdala is a compact yet superior survival system, responsible for getting us out of the way of woolly mammoths, errant (or malicious) spear throwers and alerting us to problems that might affect our remaining with the clan. (Because that used to be a Thing.)

Crucial to the continuation of the species, it is one of the strongest drivers in our physical makeup. It is instinct. It’s why we’re here today. And it has this habit of overriding everything.

Now, back to today. It’s February 2017, and waiting for hipster-suity-groover guy’s toast, I have to tell you I don’t see many woolly mammoths about. Unless I’m particularly careless or stupid, or (thanks Pauline) consume too much sugar, there is no immediate threat to my survival past morning tea. I live in a modern family and haven’t sufficiently upset them or any members of my extended family to the point where my position in the clan is at stake. Overall my chances of continuation are pretty good. So. Why? Why the tightness in the chest? What the rush of heat? Why am I ready to go White Crane on hipster-suite-groover guy?

While our pre-frontal cortex is taking all this in, taking it’s time at a rate of 300 million Thinking Bits per second (hmm. What just happened?), our T-800 Amygdala has sorted shit out in a mere 20 million Outraged Symbol Bits (&%$@#**!@#$ etc), and stands up and shouts,

  • THAT WAS MY BREAKFAST!
  • I AM STARVING!
  • AND LYN WILL BEAT ME TO THE MEETING!

New Bron is now equipped with means to have a go at muffling the T-800 Amygdala. She clamps a hand over the speaker system. Smiles for the lookers-on. ‘Nothing to see here’, her smile says. She hisses at the T-800 Amygdala to go into standby mode for a minute, and proceeds to consult the pre-frontal cortex, posing the T-800 Amygdala’s responses as questions, and looking for positive directions in which to re-think things:

  1. Yes. That was my breakfast. But perhaps hipster-suity-groover works for Medicins-Sans-Frontiers and he had to rush to the airport. You could have just saved lives!
  2. Your survival is not contingent on the turkish toast. You’ll probably make it to morning tea. Except you’ll end up with hipster-suity-groover’s toast, so…
  3. Look, I really don’t have an answer to this one, you’re incredibly childish, so…you’re on your own. (Ok, I deserve that one.)

The trick is to remember that you have to work pretty hard to overcome your amygdala’s response. With practise you can. Try it this way:

Identify and label your physical response. (Tightness in the chest, nausea; the name of any karate poses you assume.)

Trace these physical responses back to what you are thinking. (Injustice, starvation, going one-up at work.)

Now: involve your pre-frontal thinking man/woman by asking questions. And think in terms of the positive.

 

With thanks to Sandra Wood for making a difference.