May 16, 2015 12:31 am
Updated: May 16, 2015 12:34 am

Willow Bean Cafe gives jobs skills to people with mental illness

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WATCH: Many people dealing with a mental illness find that one of their greatest challenges is getting past the stigma that prevents them from re-integrating back into the workforce. But as Elaine Yong shows us, a small social enterprise in Vancouver is addressing that one cup of coffee at a time.

For Jeremiah Alexander and his fellow baristas, the Willow Bean Cafe is much more than a job.

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With every cup, there is hope that living with a mental illness doesn’t have to be a lonely and dark place.

“My illness doesn’t define me but it is a part of me, and I am who I am because I have lived with it my whole life,” said Alexander. “If I had the choice to wake up tomorrow and not have to deal with it anymore I would take that, but I don’t know if I would want to re-imagine my life without it.”

Alexander was one of the first graduates of the social enterprise program that aims to give people living with mental illness job skills and the confidence to succeed.

Through the program, which is supported by the Canadian Mental Health Association, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Sodexo, he is now back as a senior barista training the new participants.

Why close the door?

This is Dan McKay’s first job in 25 years after spending half his life in and out of the hospital and treatment facilities for his mental illness.

At his lowest point, he didn’t care whether he lived or died.

“We might have a mental illness but we can function,” said Dan McKay. “For the ones that are capable to do something, why close the door? Open it for them because they are part of society and they need to be accepted.”

He is almost at the end of his six-month training, and hasn’t felt this good in a long time.

“I’m back, like I say all the time.”

Tucked away on the ground floor of the Willow Pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital, customers often include staff and patients.

There are ups and downs, of course, but lots of laughter too, all in an environment without judgment.

“It’s a mental health facility, it’s not always smiles and rainbows,” said Alexander with a laugh. “But definitely it can be.”

-with files from Elaine Yong

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