A Special Place

A Whitby café offers work—and other opportunities—­to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

By Yuwai Brian Wong

On October 18, 2022, Hillary Myhal hands out colourful miniature aprons to children as news crews gather to witness the grand opening of Melly’s Market + Café in Whitby. Parents from the Lucky Few, a Down syndrome advocacy group, smile and talk about how their children will one day be working at Melly’s.

The Lucky Few are a group of parents raising children with Down syndrome and other intellectual/developmental disabilities. The Down Syndrome Association of Toronto reports that approximately one in every 781 babies is born with Down syndrome in Canada.

Melly’s has been a passion project of its directors, Ellen Elizabeth McRae and Aimee Ellen Ruttle, for years.

“It all started with my daughter, Melanie, who has Down syndrome. She wanted more to do. This made us think about all the adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a similar position as Melanie,” says McRae. “We wanted to give people with disabilities the chance to fulfill their own personal goals, work towards independence and feel like a part of society.”

Aimee Ruttle, Melanie’s sister, has been working as a director for adult employment programs for years. Through their collaboration, mother and daughter were able to develop a new program that could provide people with intellectual and developmental disabilities meaningful and sustainable employment; They named the café after Melanie.

The news cameras turn towards the front of the café where the children and workers are getting into place. Quadre McFarlane-Wilson, one of Melly’s first part-time workers, cuts the red ribbon and Melly’s is officially open for business.

Two-year-old Charlotte Myhal excitedly bounces around in her bright blue miniature apron outside Melly’s. Charlotte smiles, her mouth covered in blue icing while she munches on cake. She looks up at 34-year-old Melanie Ruttle. Ruttle reaches out and picks up little Charlotte. “We have the same eyes,” she says.

Melly’s is a socially conscious café and not-for-profit charity that exclusively offers adults, over the age of 21, with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a work experience program. Created by Down syndrome advocates and parents, Melly’s work experience program is unique because it can be tailored to fit each worker’s unique accessibility needs.

Myhal supports local organizations like Melly’s because she believes people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, like her daughter Charlotte who has Down syndrome, deserve every opportunity to work towards and fulfill their own personal goals.

“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are too often overlooked and they just need to be given the chance to show how capable they are,” says Myhal. 

Higher Unemployment

Unfortunately, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities face higher levels of unemployment than the general population.

In 2017, Statistics Canada reported that adults with disabilities (ages 24 to 64) were less likely to be employed than those without disabilities. The severity of disabilities also had a major impact; those with mild disabilities were more likely to be employed than those with very severe disabilities.

Recently, the Ontario government has made commitments to help students and families with special education needs through donations and partnerships,

“We are fully committed to improving educational outcomes and job prospects for students with special education needs, which is exactly why our government is funding new partnerships to better support children with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities,” says Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education.

But despite these commitments, there remains a negative perception of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

McFarlane-Wilson recounts growing up with autism in Scarborough. “From a young age there was a lot bullying from peers and teachers,” he says. “Kids would pick on me and even one of my teachers said I’d never amount to anything, no college or university.”

A Safe, Welcoming Space

Melly’s provides its workers a safe space and a welcoming environment for all who come visit.

In the backroom of Melly’s, where the workers take their breaks and socialize, there is a shelf full of colourful jars. They are filled with pictures and trinkets meant to represent each of the workers’ dreams and goals. McFarlane-Wilson’s jar is filled with pictures of world class martial arts titles and fighters because he is working towards becoming one of the world’s elite fighters.

McRae and Ruttles’ advocacy for Melanie and their aspirations for her to feel included as a member of society, resulted in place that would do that and morenot only for Melanie, but for others with special gifts as well.  Thanks to Melly’s and its business inclusion partners, McFarlane-Wilson will be starting a new part-time position at CrossFit Oshawa.

Hillary and Charlotte Myall frequent Melly’s because it’s a place that empowers and gives hope for future generations of people with intellectual disabilities. Like McRae, Hillary has big aspirations for Charlotte: “We want Charlotte to grow up believing she can be anything she wants to be. If she dreams of going to college or university, we will do everything in our power to make sure that happens.”

Freelance writer Yuwai Brian Wong can be reached at Y.brianwong@gmail.com