A restaurant in Portadown which trains young people with learning difficulties in catering skills is in danger of closing due to funding issues.
The Step-by-Step charity, which runs Mandeville Street project The 180 Degrees Restaurant, cites April as the deadline date if more funding is not forthcoming.
It is in the process of setting up a meeting with Employment Minister Stephen Farry to effect major changes in the funding.
Charity chairperson Fiona Rowan is contacting the minister with a view to “creating a totally new funding scheme”.
She is backed by people such as UUP councillor Doug Beattie and Dr Peter Cunningham, principal of Ceara Special School, where many of the young people are recruited.
Ms Rowan said: “We are currently training 17 young people and could deal with 40 if we had adequate funding. We depend on the rather inflexible funding from education sources plus various charity donations.
“Not only are we training these young people for possible employment, but we are training them in life skills.”
Cllr Beattie said: “We are setting up a high-powered delegation to ask for a meeting with Stephen Farry. We believe that the project should be financed outside the usual restrictive education criteria.
“This scheme concentrates on school leavers who would have nowhere else to go – especially the 19-plus age group from special education who are largely abandoned after school days.”
Dr Cunningham said: “The vast majority of our pupils languish at home after they receive what we deem a superb education here.
“This wonderful 180 Restaurant scheme is unique.
“Fiona Rowan and her team have created a true gem and the Government must back it to the hilt.
“We could provide as many young people as they can absorb and I will be only too willing to join in the meeting with the minister.”
Two young trainees in the restaurant – which provides meals and snacks for the general public - are Michael McWilliams and Aaron Steele.
They are involved in preparing meals, serving at tables, helping in the kitchen and preparing bills.
Mr McWilliams said: “We serve a wide range of meals – our steak sandwiches and goujons are a speciality and we do a great range of sweets and coffee.
“I’ve learned a lot here and it has really brightened my life.”
Mr Steele said: “It gets me out of the house. I’d like to land a job in catering.”
His mother Lyn added: “The restaurant has made such a difference to Aaron. It has given him real confidence.”
The ethos is to learn on the job, with four days’ practical and one day in class.
There are two qualified chefs, with a total of seven employees tutoring and encouraging the young people.
Ms Rowan said: “We’ve been going for five years and 85 per cent of our students find employment.
“It’s vital that we keep going and we hope the meeting with Stephen Farry comes up with a solution.”
The restaurant has started an online petition for support – key in ‘Restaurant 180’ and follow the links.
A spokesperson for the Department for Employment and Learning said: “Minister Farry agreed to a request from Jo-Anne Dobson MLA to meet with representatives from Restaurant 180.
“These arrangements were subsequently cancelled by Ms Dobson.
“If the organisation still requires a meeting they should make a request to the department.”