EMMA DUNN meets the staff and volunteers behind the scenes at a cafe with a difference – one helping to change people’s lives QUEUEING at the till for the Olive Tree Cafe, the busy venue looks like any other business of its kind.

There’s a buzz of chatter and laughter as you walk in, staff rushing around making hot drinks and clearing tables, and you can hear people hard at work in the kitchen.

In fact, with big homemade cakes on display, and a tempting looking breakfast and lunch menu, it looks much better than your average cafe.

But unlike other eateries, the Olive Tree Cafe, based at Manor Garden Centre in Cheney Manor, is helping to turn lives around.

Many of the people who work and volunteer there have experienced mental health issues and the cafe is a way of introducing them back into work.

Other volunteers and workers are there because they know someone who has experienced mental health issues or just want to help out. Together, they are hoping to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness.

Manager Phyllida Richards said they see the volunteers and staff grow and develop during their time at the cafe.

“We see them talking to customers, taking on more responsibility and learning new skills. We see a real change in them and they gain more self belief,” said Phyllida, who formerly worked as an occupational therapist.

“We have had people move on from volunteering here into work elsewhere, and we have been able to create jobs here too. It’s a two way thing – they’re giving us their time and skills and hopefully the cafe gives them self esteem and confidence.

“We always wanted this place to be a stepping stone for people to get back into the workplace. From the very beginning, everybody has felt part of this. This is everybody’s cafe.

“It’s okay to make mistakes here and it’s okay to have fun... but you also work hard.

“It’s about everybody supporting each other and feeling like they are contributing. It’s about making contact with people and feeling like you are worth something.

“For us, the people who volunteer and work here are more important than the business.

“Amazingly we have got a lovely business as well and we get lots of fantastic customers who really like what we do. The customers have supported and encouraged us right from the very beginning and that means a lot to everybody here.”

The cafe, which is a registered charity and works in partnership with mental health charity TWIGS, has 55 volunteers and 10 paid staff.

Many of them are from TWIGS, Chatsworth House, Catch 22 and Marlborough House.

They bake their own cakes, biscuits and scones in the kitchen, and they also make fresh dishes to order such as paninis, jacket potatoes and omelettes, many of which are made using fresh produce from the gardens of neighbouring TWIGS.

The Olive Tree Cafe also has a kitchen garden where they grow fruit and vegetables, including strawberries, onions, blueberries, courgettes, beetroot, carrots, parsnips and leeks, which are also used in their recipes.

They make homemade chutneys and jams too.

It’s clearly a recipe that works. The cafe has been so successful since it opened in 2011 that it is set to have an extension. Phyllida thanked everyone who has helped them raise the money for it, including Hills. Building work is due to start on September 15.

Among the people hard at work in the kitchen is Gemma Insley, of Toothill, who started as a volunteer two years ago but is now employed there as a cook and supervisor.

Gemma was previously diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a long-term condition which causes pain all over the body. However, as a result of all the medication she was taking, she developed medication-induced bipolar disorder.

The 30-year-old is now off her medication due to finding alternative therapies. She no longer self harms or suffers from depression.

Gemma started volunteering at the Olive Tree Cafe while she was in recovery. She is now training to be a plumber.

“When I was having my bad days, normally I would have shut myself away and let my depression get to mem but I could come into work and know they would be supportive and understanding. It’s like one big family,” she said.

“I feel like a different person now. When I first came I was very withdrawn and you never got a smile out of me. Now all the volunteers come to me if they have got a problem.

“It’s nice to know you can help people on their road to recovery and help them flourish. I feel appreciated, which is worth more than any wage.”

Eighteen-year-old Vikki West, of Gorse Hill, said the cafe is helping both her and her mum, Jackie, through their mental health issues.

Vikki, who is hoping to go to uni to study zoology and herpetology, was so impressed that she did a skydive to raise funds as a way of saying thank you.

“I started here as a washer last year because they have helped my mum,” she said. “When I started to feel a bit depressed they helped me so much. I’m still going through it now but it’s a lot better than it was. I don’t think I would have done so well without the cafe.

“I have gained a lot of confidence from being here and quite a few people have noticed it.”

Vikki’s mum, Jackie, who is employed at the cafe, has post-traumatic disorder and borderline personality disorder. She has been helped by TWIGS and joined the team at the cafe when she gained confidence.

“You feel part of a team and it is something to get up for,” said the 46-year-old.

“Before I came here, my daughter was my carer and I wasn’t really getting out of the house. For me, it’s just been brilliant. Even if I have a rough day they are so understanding.”

The Olive Tree Cafe is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am until 3pm (4pm in spring and summer), and 11am until 3pm on Sundays. Hot food is available until 2.30pm each day.

For more information or to volunteer phone 01793 533152, email olivetreecafeswindon@gmail.com or visit www.theolivetreecafe.org.uk.