Not a single plastic bag or scrap of excess packaging in sight. A welcome addition to our plastic polluted island
But there’s more to this worthy venture than meets the eye. Zero Waste Shop Phuket also offers on-the-job training for teenagers and adults with learning differences through the “Steps With Theera” vocational training centre, located next door. Steps uses social enterprises to demonstrate that people with learning differences can add value to any business.
The launch of both shop and centre passed without the fanfare they seemed to deserve. Intrigued, I make my way north to while away a rainy afternoon with Stacey Patterson-Wulff, who heads up the centre, and Jack and Nakita, two of the centre’s three trainees.
We meet at the shop at Blue Tree Phuket, a family entertainment destination taking shape on Srisoonthorn Rd. There’s a recycling station, ready for waste paper, plastic bags, wax crayons and bottle caps, in one corner, and a stack of secondhand books in another. Rows of glass jars, and a whole host of products to fill them with, are neatly arranged on upcycled tables and shelves.
Trainees were instrumental in the shop’s design and construction, from building furniture to laying out stock. What they’ve created is a vibrantly coloured and welcoming space for the Phuket community.
This style of on-site, hands-on learning is at the core of the centre’s UK-accredited programmes which they offer in hospitality and catering, administration, art and design, and ICT. Each programme is geared towards improving communication skills, encouraging independence and enhancing employability. Trainees receive certification for the modules they complete and can even build up credits that are recognised by colleges and universities.
“We also tailor courses to particular interests,” explains Stacey. “At the moment, Jack is taking a short course in expressive arts, looking at mythology in particular, and our new trainee Jordan is interested in hospitality and working with children so we’re exploring that with her.”
Nakita, on the other hand, is on the brink of transitioning from the Steps With Theera programme to full-time work in her very own coffee shop “Steps With Nakita”, due to open in Blue Tree late next month. Two years training under the Steps programme in Bangkok and working at a nearby coffee shop have prepared her well for this transition, and she’s looking forward to getting stuck in behind the bar where I’m reliably informed she makes a mean fruit soda.
Alongside Nakita, Steps With Theera in Bangkok has transformed the lives of 24 trainees, with 100% of graduates now in paid employment. The social enterprise is the brainchild of Uang “Theeta” Hokrakitya and Max Simpson who met in 2016. Max, then a deputy head teacher at an international special needs school, and Theeta, whose son attended the school, saw the lack of opportunities the students had beyond school.
(Of the two million people with disabilities in Thailand, less than 2% have received vocational training and less than 25% are employed.)
Max started taking small groups of students to Theeta’s bakery for work experience and the pair saw them flourish almost immediately. From this, Steps With Theera, the first centre of its kind in Thailand, was born.
The Steps model struck a chord with Stacey, an occupational therapist who worked in neurorehabilitation in her native South Africa, helping adults with brain injuries return to work.
“Helping people to go into the community and live life to the fullest – that’s where my passion is as an occupational therapist and as a person,” says Stacey. “Steps is taking a group that’s often overlooked and giving them the skills to harness opportunities.”
Although Steps With Theera is new to Phuket, the impact of Stacey’s work with the trainees is already evident. Before I leave, Stacey sets up a role-playing exercise to allow Jack to practice his newfound customer service skills.
After a warm welcome and a complimentary drink, Jack shows me around the shop, confidently explaining the refill process and pointing out their sustainably sourced teas, handmade soaps, cotton grocery bags and wooden cutlery. Impressed, I purchase some SuperBee wax wraps – an alternative to clingfilm – and some bamboo cotton buds, inadvertently becoming the shop’s very first customer.
I could wax lyrical about Zero Waste Shop Phuket and the Steps With Theera vocational training centre, but the trainees speak for their transformative impact better than I ever could.
“Steps is popping the bubble and getting me out there,” says Jack. “Now, I see myself having a future.”
Zero Waste Shop Phuket is located at Unit 13, Blue Tree Community Mall, 4/2 Srisoonthorn, Cherng Talay, 83110. Open every day from 9am-6pm except Wednesday when it’s open from 9am-2:30pm. Follow the shop here.
For more information about the Steps With Theera vocational training centre, visit www.facebook.com/stepsphuket or email firstname.lastname@example.org