Hanoi restaurant serves hope for kids with mental disorders

By Le Minh, Minh Nga   May 7, 2019 | 04:26 pm GMT+7
Youth with mental disorders work at a unique Hanoi restaurant, sparking hope they can stand on their own feet.

"Teacher, I want to draw something special."

"What do you want to draw?"

"Here," says Ha, adding, "This is my gift to you."

Ha, a 14 year old girl with Down syndrome, has just drawn Nguyen Thi Le Thuy, her teacher.

Thuy is not Ha’s formal teacher, and they are not in a drawing class.

Ha works at the Ong Mat (Honey Bee) restaurant.

Her drawing is one of many activities that she participates in after she finishes her work every day.

At first glance, Ong Mat looks no different from other restaurants that serve lunch to office workers. Nothing on its menu or its decoration stands out. But once a customer steps in, the difference is obvious.

All the waiters and waitresses are teenagers with various kinds of disorders, including autism and Down syndrome.

The restaurant, which opened at 20, Alley 165 of Xa Dan Street in Dong Da District in January this year, is the initiative of Thuy, mother of an autistic child.

Nguyen Thi Le Thuy  process vegetables with the disabled kids at Ong Mat restaurant. 

Nguyen Thi Le Thuy prepares vegetables with some of the special staff at Ong Mat restaurant. Photo by VnExpress/Le Minh

With a desire to "love, accompany and give hope" for their special children, Thuy and 11 other parents established the restaurant in coordination with the Hanoi-based Support for Families and Children with mental Disabilities (SFCmD).

The restaurant is a safe, secure place for the special needs children and youth to learn both work skills and life skills, hopefully enabling them to stand on their own feet, someday.

The name Ong Mat, literally meaning "honey bee," was chosen to stress the fact that "to get where they are now, all the kids here have been working really hard like a bee that makes honey," Thuy said.

Not working hard is not an option for the adults and the kids at the restaurant.

While it would only take a few days in order to teach a normal child basic kitchen skills, the children and their parents at Ong Mat, go on a difficult journey to get there.

There have been days when the kids totally forgot everything they had learned and had to start everything all over again.

Over three months of innumerable ups and downs, most of the "bees" at Ong Mat have gone from not knowing how to hold a knife properly to mastering cooking skills at a certain level. They have learnt to process raw materials, wash dishes, serve customers and even cook as a chef.

To encourage the kids, the parents would give them gifts and award stars every time they showed an improvement.

Thuy said Ong Mat was a dream she had been nurturing for almost a decade to help people like her son. From her own experience, she understood the pains of children with mental disorders as well as the sufferings of their parents.

Most of the time, the children are isolated from the outside world.

Like all such parents, Thuy worried about what would happen her child grew up. How would they survive? How will they integrate with society? Ong Mat is an effort to find an answer to such questions.

"I really hope that this project will work out and that the kids will have a job, a place where they can really work and take care of themselves when they grow up."

"When we, parents of these kids, can no longer be by their side, who’s going help them?"

Small steps

For the "bees," a working day at Ong Mat starts at 8:30 a.m. and lasts until customers have finished their lunch.

Each bee is guided to do the job that suits his or her ability.

Thuy and others in charge constantly try to create a work environment wherein the children can communicate with each other.

After the working session, the kids play games, learn to draw, do math and read.

"Ever since my daughter joined Ong Mat, I have seen positive changes. She is now braver, more responsible and enthusiastic," said Nguyen Thi Duong, Ha’s mother.


Two employees of Ong Mat peel potatoes and carrots. Photo by VnExpress/Le Minh

Adults learn, too

Thuy said she used to be a hot tempered person, but thanks to her son, Diu Dang, she has learned how to stay patient and calm.

Diu Dang would easily forget how to peel and cut vegetables if he was away from the restaurant for a few days. Each time it happened, Thuy would train him again from scratch.

With some of the children not even knowing how to ask for what they want or to tell others if they are hurt or tired, the adults have to strain hard to understand them. Therefore, Ong Mat has no place for yelling or scorning anyone.

At Ong Mat, the parents have to work nonstop, repeatedly telling the kids what they have to do, and showing them how to do it the right way.

Slowly but surely, the kids are developing a sense of belonging at Ong Mat.

Thuy said that whenever one of them is naughty or makes too many mistakes, she only needs to tell them: "You don’t have to come to Ong Mat anymore," and they would be so scared that they would try to fix their mistakes immediately.

For every smile, nod and sentence that the staff gives to customers, Thuy and other parents cannot say how many times they have had to tell themselves to be calm and patient.

Customers to Ong Mat also need to show some patience, and not expect fast, smooth service from the children for whom the most normal thing is a big struggle.

One of the parents teach the disabled children at Ong Mat to use cash.

A parent teaches the children at Ong Mat to use cash. Photo coutersy of Ong Mat

It’s working

But all efforts have started to pay off. Three months on, Ong Mat has now built a circle of loyal customers, and every day, new customers are finding the place.

"This is the first time I've come to Ong Mat. I learned about this place through the social media so I’ve brought some friends here."

"The food is good enough and I feel quite comfortable communicating with the kids here. I think they have tried really hard to be able to do what they’re doing now," said Nhu, 23, an office worker.

"Ha rarely said a word during the first month she was here but now she is really energetic. Dat could not hold a knife but now he does that just perfectly. Minh could not do anything in the beginning but now, he could almost covers every job and is the one that has truly improved the most," said Thuy, unable to hold back her emotions.  

Encouraged, Thuy and other parents are now teaching their children how to use cash so that they can collect payment from customers, return change and one day in the near future, go the supermarket on their own.

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