Building Ben’s village

Posted on 06 July 2017
Mountain View

This is a story about Ben Hunter, but really it’s just as much about his Mum, Carolyn.

Ben is 21, has Down syndrome and is non-verbal. He’s also the front man of Ben & Co, which began as an enterprise in baking but quickly became a community.

Carolyn has a passion for educating people with disabilities about food. She remembers often seeing the parents of a classmate of Ben’s, who like their child also had an intellectual disability, at the local supermarket. Invariably they’d be in the frozen goods section buying readymade meals. “That encouraged me to teach Ben how to cook, to make sure he had basic skills.”

They were living in Canberra, where Ben’s father Ian was working in defence, when Carolyn came across a course in kitchen operations. Ben had helped out in the canteen at school but always seemed more interested in gardening than cooking. She signed him up anyway, four half days a week alongside six other students. One afternoon Carolyn arrived to collect Ben and he greeted her with a batch of scones. “He was just beaming. I thought, ‘I’d better follow this up.’”

They were about to move to Toowoomba, and their housing wish list was tweaked to include enough space to one day establish a kitchen garden, bore water to service it, and a granny flat. Ben will live there eventually, but for now it’s the Ben & Co coalface, home to a commercial kitchen where muffins and other baked goods are whipped up each week for sale at the local Saturday market. They supply two cafes, too, a number that’s about to grow.

Carolyn’s vision has broadened, but not in a money-making sense. She sees what this engagement has done for her son, and knows it can have the same impact on others. Ben’s thing is cooking, but she wants to also cater for young people with intellectual disabilities for whom gardening lights up their world. “Just imagine if I had a gardener employed, who looked after an acre of veggies, and we could have two or three young adults with disabilities working there, supplying things for Ben & Co to bake with …

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