I was recently invited to a blogger event at the Lighthouse Union Store in Cookridge.
As one of my aims for this blog is to explore more of Leeds and not just keep going to the same places, I was glad to have an excuse to visit somewhere new, north of the city centre.
The Lighthouse Union Store is a store and café run by the Lighthouse Union charity. The invitation stated that the purpose of the event was to raise awareness of the charity and to give us bloggers the opportunity to look at the new and second-hand homeware and clothing sold in the shop.
I was informed that the Leeds-based charity is “dedicated to creating successful careers for people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or learning difficulties. The charity supports individuals with autism and helps them find employment by focusing on their talents, strengths and interests.” I’d not heard of the Lighthouse Union before so was happy to go along and find out more about it.
Closer to the day, I received an email saying that we’d be taking part in “Speed friending – an experiential activity that allows guest to better understand the difficulties for people with ASD.” This made feel both nervous and intrigued!
I took Chloe with me (turns out she never says no to a free event). We received a glass of prosecco on arrival and got a chance to look around the store.
The Lighthouse Union store is a lovely little café and shop with white walls displaying cute gifts and cards, including products from the Harrogate Candle Company and a York Chocolatier. The back of the store is filled with beautiful vintage outfits, plenty of baby clothes and blankets, and Moda in Belle shoes, which have been donated after only been worn once on a catwalk or for catalogue photoshoots.
We didn’t get a chance to try the food in the café, but the muffins and treats on display looked delicious. The sandwiches and cakes come from Filmore & Union, and judging by fellow blogger Natalie Tamara’s instagram photos and comments, are very tasty. I’ll be going back to sample some myself.
After browsing the store, we got to hear from Katie Parlett, the charity’s Chair of Trustees, who explained why the Lighthouse Union had opened the store and a bit more about the charity. It was a really inspirational story.
Katie and other parents of children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) set up a free school that provides young people with the support they need to enable them to “learn, thrive and achieve in life.”
Katie explained that there are currently less than 7% of individuals with a learning disability and 15% of individuals with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder in employment. The charity aims to get 80% into appropriate paid employment. Which is where the store comes in.
The Lighthouse Union Store is the first in a series of small enterprises designed to bring together the School’s understanding of special needs, education and commercial skills to help young people “find their place in society with self-esteem and confidence.”
There are plenty of employment and learning opportunities within the store – not just serving the food but all aspects of running a store such as understanding pricing structures, stock intake and marketing. The profits made from the store go back into helping create employment opportunities for young adults with additional needs.
The charity aspect of the café and store is quite played down. I guess the point is that the quality of food and gifts is good enough to entice and maintain customers in its own right, although I think people would be interested and even more supportive if they knew the background.
After hearing Katie talk about the school and the store, we got on to the speed friending activity. We all had to wear masks of our own faces and then had three minutes to chat with the person opposite us on a table, before moving around to the next person.
The point of the mask was so that we wouldn’t be able to pick up on any non-verbal cues (such as smiles or raised eyebrows) and couldn’t use our hands, so we had to rely solely on words. This was to help replicate how people with ASD struggle to recognise social cues such as verbal, physical or emotional communication.
It was surprisingly difficult. The fact that the masks muffled the sound so it was really hard to hear didn’t help, but I found it really hard not to use my hands and felt quite awkward not getting any facial feedback from whoever I was speaking to.
I was doubting everything I was saying – did the other person understand what I’d said? Did they find me funny? Were they bored? Although we all managed to hold a conversation, there was a noticeable difference when the masks came off. As soon as we were maskless, the chatter increased and conversation flowed. It was a really interesting experience.
We spent some more time talking to each other and browsing the items in the store (no surprise that I bought chocolate…) before taking part in a raffle and going home with our lovely goody bags.
For those who live in North Leeds (or perhaps want a coffee stop before driving on to Otley or Ilkley), the Lighthouse Union Store looks like a lovely place for a drink and a sandwich and to pick up some gifts or clothes. If you have a bag of good quality clothes to donate, you can get a free cuppa as well, which is an added bonus.
Thanks to the Lighthouse Union Store and Search Laboratory team for inviting me to their blogger event.