PETALING JAYA: For businessman Lai Chong Haur, nothing feels more heartening than seeing disabled teenagers learn to provide for themselves through skill learning.“All they need are opportunities and patience, ” said the 50-year-old, who is the brains behind Seven Tea One, a venture that employs and trains differently abled teenagers and the marginalised to earn an income in a non-discriminative work environment.
After taking over the social enterprise from his co-founder in 2018, Lai decided to dedicate his time to bring about a change in other people’s lives.
“After spending more than 20 years in the corporate world, the desire to help others in need just grew stronger.
“Rather than working for myself, I would like to assist others to enrich their lives and help them grow so that they can cope with life challenges, ” he said.
Seven Tea One is known for its handcrafted infusion teas made from local ingredients of herbs, flowers and spices sourced from small-scale, urban, family-run farms and community gardens around the Klang Valley.
They also make cookies, dried fruits and handmade soaps, including the recently-launched cooked meals, following the Covid-19 pandemic and movement control order (MCO).
“Currently, we have 18 teenagers with Down syndrome or autism.
“Most of them are non-verbal and several have been with us for over two years, ” he said, adding that the day starts at around 9.30am when the teenagers come to work.
Operating from the kitchen area of its cafe in Setia Alam, Lai said the cafe manager, who is a single mother with an autistic child, would assist the teenagers and delegate the tasks accordingly.
“They will be asked to sort leaves, clean, dry, arrange, package and also cook and clean.
“Since it is the conditional MCO now, the teenagers will come in smaller groups at different times and on different days.
“Every day, there will be about four to five in a team, accompanied by a parent or guardian.
“We encouraged this to promote bonding and build a good support system for them, ” he said, adding that different products were rotated for production among the teenagers daily.
Lai said the pandemic has affected Seven Tea One in various ways, with some of them feeling unhappy that they could not go to the cafe daily like before.
“The sales of our products dropped tremendously. There are no more bazaars to participate in and we have fewer procurement from corporate or event organisers.
“Now, we conduct online sales on e-commerce websites. Our Kitchen For Good Cafe is also serving cooked meals that contain no chemicals made from gluten-free ingredients, available for dine-in and delivery, ” he said, adding that the cafe closes at 5pm daily.
Lai, who owns a human resource consultancy firm and an outdoor retreat centre, said he now spends 60% of his time managing Seven Tea One with his staff and managers.
Although he has been injecting his own funds to keep it afloat since the MCO began in March, Lai said he would not give up “looking after the happiness” of the teenagers.
“We are fortunate that we can work and carve our future but it is a privilege denied to some people.
“Each time I see how happy the children are at the cafe, it gives me hope and assurance that investing in the happiness of others is worth it.
“I believe with proper marketing, Seven Tea One can still make a difference in these challenging times, ” he said, adding that he aims to increase the beneficiaries to 30 people by next year.
“We are working hard to scale up and set up another centre by the second quarter of next year to cater to new beneficiaries, including single mothers, ” he said.
Lai added that Seven Tea One was in the midst of applying for the halal and MeSTI food safety certifications.
“We hope more people and corporations will support us in our efforts to provide meaningful and sustainable impact to marginalised communities.
“We do not need sympathy but acceptance from the society of our differences and strength. These special teenagers are capable and independent too, ” he said.
For their efforts, Seven Tea One is recognised as one of the 10 winners of Star Golden Hearts Award 2020, an annual award that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes.
Seven Tea One is also one of the two Gamuda Inspiration Award winners, which came with a grant of RM50,000.
“This recognition is a testament to our mission of empowering the differently abled and marginalised.
“We are thankful for the recognition, ” he said.
With the grant, Lai said the structure of training programmes at Seven Tea One could be improved with more entrepreneurial activities conducted to increase the socio-economic status of the beneficiaries.