LISA PARKER is the new chef on the block.
She starts her day in the kitchen of Warrandyte’s favourite social enterprise café, Now and Not Yet, cutting and chopping up ingredients, portioning sauces and vegetables and seasoning meats.
She commands the ovens and fryers, reigns supreme over the stove top, and knows how to make a mean batch of pancakes.
Lisa also happens to be deaf.
Her employment at Now and Not Yet isn’t just a job—it’s a life changing experience, especially after over 100 rejected job applications and years of struggling to find fulfilling work.
I sat down with Lisa, her interpreter Danielle Don and Sign for Work case worker Laura Bell to chat about her job, being welcomed into the Warrandyte community, and why she puts a few heaped teaspoons of sugar into her Now and Not Yet coffees—it takes the edge off the caffeine, she says.
Lisa started as a volunteer in the Now and Not Yet kitchen six months ago.
It was a sharp change of pace from her last job, working as a cleaner in accommodation houses in Tasmania.
From working in isolation cleaning homes—hard and tiring work—where the only person she communicated with was her employer via text, to the bustling, fast-paced kitchen on Warrandyte’s main street — it’s a big change, but a welcome one.
“I love it here,” Lisa says.
“I actually enjoy coming to work because there’s nothing worrying about it.
“It’s a really comfortable and friendly place, and everyone just goes with the flow here.”
It’s the people that make all the difference.
The worst part of her old cleaning job was that she was always working alone, Lisa says, and that it was isolating and quiet.
But here in the busy kitchen on Yarra Street, the word “quiet” certainly doesn’t come to mind.
The kitchen, the coffee counter and the café floor are almost always teeming with people.
And it’s these people, staff, customers and community members alike, that have made Lisa feel so welcome in Warrandyte.
“I’m mixing with different people and I get to meet a variety of different people.
“They’re just friendly and welcoming and they accept people for who they are — they don’t shun people or push them away, or judge them.
“With me, it’s just a different style of communication and instead of going ‘oh that’s too hard’, everyone here actually wanted to learn.
“They’re taking the time to try to communicate through mime and gesture or by writing things down — they accept me for who I am.”
When Lisa joined the team in the kitchen, the communication process between staff members changed.
Gone were loud vocal cues and yelled warnings (“HOT!), and in their place a bevy of basic sign language phrases, hand gestures and lots of smiles.
Lisa explains the system to me: one tap on the shoulder if somebody needs her attention, two taps to let her know somebody is walking behind her or carrying something hot, to avoid giving her a fright.
“Sometimes it can be hard, so we have to write things down.
But everyone is trying their best to communicate with me, and I’ve been teaching them some sign language.”
And they’ve taken a shine to it.
Jack, a full time chef in the Now and Not Yet kitchen, has made a determined effort to learn AUSLAN and ensure that the kitchen is a safe, supportive and inviting place for Lisa.
And as a result, his relationship with Lisa is an incredibly special one, where the roles of mentor and mentee are reciprocal: Jack teaches Lisa skills in the kitchen, and Lisa teaches him sign language and deaf awareness.
“It was a bit of a struggle to start with because I didn’t know any sign language — but because Lisa and I got along so well, it was easier to learn from her.
“I’m not fluent obviously, but I’ve learned things like bacon, lamb…the really important words! It’s fun but it’s a lot of work to remember,” Jack says.
They’re both visual learners, and Lisa says having Jack in the kitchen with her ensures every day is filled with plenty of learning — but plenty of fun too.
“[Jack] has a really cheeky laugh and we have a good giggle in the kitchen together,” she says.
Laura Bell, Lisa’s case worker from Sign for Work, says that being employed by Now and Not Yet has been a transformative experience for Lisa.
“Lisa has struggled in employment previously; but now I see this happy and excited person every single day.
“Her confidence wasn’t there and her sense of self-worth, but to see the change in her is amazing,” she said.
But Laura Bell says that it’s a rarity for a deaf person to find such a cooperative and supportive workplace in Melbourne.
Now and Not Yet is the exception.
“For us to find people who are so accepting and willing to employ a deaf person…and they did it all own their own, without us prompting them!
“Even when Lisa was just a volunteer here, they all wanted to learn sign language, learn how to communicate and make it easier for her.
“Most hearing people don’t try to involve themselves in the deaf persons experience, it’s just sort of like, you’re here in my hearing world, work it out — that makes it really hard to keep a deaf person in employment,” Laura says.
“So finding a special, unique place like this… they on their own said ‘how can we become deaf? How can we make your life easier?’.
“In this situation, we’ve not come across any roadblocks, it’s just about saying how can we support Lisa? How can we make this experience great?”
Laura and Lisa agree that it’s not just about finding and creating opportunities, but more broadly contributing to deaf awareness.
“The wider community today just doesn’t accept something as basic as hearing loss — I can’t understand it, and it makes it so hard — but the community here in Warrandyte, we need more people like the people here,” Laura says.
“Just because somebody is hard of hearing or deaf, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the skills to succeed and to work, it’s about patience and resilience, and they can be on the exact same level as their hearing counterparts.”
And café owner Derek Bradshaw, says it’s people like Lisa that are the reason he does the work he does.
“It’s why we exist, there’s no point in being a social enterprise and putting money back into the community if you’re not actually willing to really live it in everything you do,” Derek says.
“I’d say that probably over a third of our staff have faced some kind of significant challenge or have a learning disability.
“We actually kind of gravitate towards employing people that maybe wouldn’t be offered a job in a more mainstream workplace.
“For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about this place is the opportunity to assist and help people every day and provide employment and training — it’s pretty hard to put a value on that.”
Derek is implementing a number of workplace modifications to make Lisa’s job easier, including putting a mirror in the kitchen so Lisa can see behind her, and getting Lisa a watch or pager, that can vibrate to let her know when alarms or timers are going off on the kitchen appliances.
Lisa’s not sure what’s next for her, but for now, it’s all about becoming a better chef, learning more skills and completing her TAFE course in culinary arts and hospitality.