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Handicapped making their own future: one sandwich at a time

Model Kajusita workshop on lookout for additional funding

By JANE GEORGE

KUUJJUAQ — What you notice first about these chefs is that they smile a lot and seem to have much more fun cooking than most people do.

As Charlie Ekomiak, Jessie Munick and Jessie Grey sit around the table assembling submarine sandwiches, they’re happy- and intent on their jobs.

Jessie G. carefully lays cold cuts into one of the submarine rolls that Charlie baked earlier. Jessie M. then puts in cheese, while Charlie fills the sub with coleslaw freshly made by the girls.

The finished subs are then wrapped carefully in plastic and sold for an extremely reasonable price of $2.89.

“Mothers in Kuujjuaq love these subs for their kids because they’re so nutritious,” says Forbes Moran, an instructor with the Kativik School Board.

Moran isn’t there as as a short-order cook, but because he sees the cooking and baking as skills on which these workers can build independence.

Called Kajusita or “Let’s move forward”, the workshop has a total of four employees, all of whom have physical or mental handicaps. This means they need some special assistance to master skills needed in the workplace.

The employees receive $12 an hour from Quebec’s Office des personnes handicappées, while the workshop supervisor’s salary and other expenses are covered through donations.

Instructor Moran is on loan from the KSB where he was formerly interim director of the Adult Education centre in Kuujjuaq . Before that he taught Inuit inmates at the St-Jérôme Detention centre.

Aldo Caissea, the workshop’s supervisor, has worked as a camp cook. A parent of a child with some challenges of his own, Aldo says he really enjoys his interaction with the workers.

“You just have to accept them as they are and appreciate it.”

Caissea and Moran make sure everyone acquires skills and confidence as they cook. Beyond learning how to bake cookies, cakes and French bread, there are also many opportunities for the workers to apply good nutrition and use “kitchen math” as they measure and weigh ingredients and buy supplies.

Every Monday and Tuesday, Kajusita’s workers go to the local Northern store where they learn about grocery items and various aspects of retail work. During the rest of the week, they’re churning out subs and baked goods that are sold by special order or through the Newviq’vi Store.

Kajusita’s kitchen is located in the same building as Kuujjuaq’s new youth centre, and it’s been in operation there since September, although many in the community are just discovering it.

The employees and staff raised their workshop’s profile by operating a small canteen at the recent Makivik Corporation and Katutjiniq meetings in Kuujjuaq.

Among Kajusita’s future plans is a coffee shop at its present premises at the community youth centre. The centre is owned by the municipality, however, and there’s no guarantee that the workshop will be able to stay. Kuujjuaq’s mayor, Michael Gordon, has given the youth centre’s council the final word.

Moran says he’s determined to make sure the workshop gets off the ground successfully in Kuujjuaq. It could be a model for similar workshops in other Nunavik communities.

“I think its time has come,” says Moran. “The attitude now is that a good government helps take care of all its people.”

A non-profit group, Kajusita is heavily dependent on community goodwill and donations for its survival. So far, it’s received help from Makivik Corporation, Kuujjuamiut Society, the Kativik Regional Development Council, the municipality of Kuujjuaq, the Kuujjuaq Inn and Nunavik’s regional board of health and social services.

But, as the workshop tries to plan its future, Moran says it could use more stable support, in the form of a full-time co-ordinator.

Right now, administrative work — including fundraising, government paperwork and even payroll — is handled by a volunteer board of directors led by president Adamie Alaku, vice-president Sammy Duncan and treasurer Penny Jones.

“The first time we wrote the paycheques, we felt as proud as those who were getting the cheques!” says Jones.

Board president Alaku, who is also the busy director of transportation for Nunavik, says he decided to get involved with Kajusita out of curiousity and a commitment to help the challenged members of his community.

“It’s good for these people and for their ego,” says Alaku.

But Kajusita’s continued success will depend on obtaining more support.

“Not very many people are aware of what we’re trying to do,” concludes Alaku. “That’s half the battle”

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