Autistic trio sell lunch boxes to gain business skills

(L-R): Jennifer, Gerald, Eileen, KL, Benjamin and Alyson – the Hawkeye group and their friends supporting them. (Eileen Soon pic)

PETALING JAYA: Most people assume that those who are autistic live out their lives totally dependent on others for their livelihoods. It is practically unheard of that these special needs individuals are capable of learning a skill and earning a living from it.

However, three young Penangites who are autistic are proving just how enterprising and talented they can be.

Meet Jennifer Means, 28; Yap Yi Xin, 25; and Benjamin Tan, 28, who have been putting their culinary and business skills to good use by selling lunch sets on a weekly basis since July.

Calling themselves the ‘Hawkeye Group’ due to their love for all things Marvel, these three high-functioning autistic students, polished their skills at LemmeLearn, a vocational training centre in Pulau Tikus.

Speaking to FMT, founder of LemmeLearn, Eileen Soon, 36, said the centre aims to ensure that those with disabilities are seen and heard, and go on to discover their true value in society.

She explained that when the Covid-19 MCO was enforced in March, all three lost their paid internships when their bosses had no choice but to scale down his number of employees.

Without a job, the three soon found themselves financially dependent again on others for their survival.

So instead of equipping her students with vocational skills, Soon said she focussed on teaching them functional living and social communication skills so they could become more independent.

“We wanted to find a way to empower them. We also knew many parents had plans to set the students up with businesses in the future but we knew they were still lacking skills so in July, we came up with project LemmeStart.

“We gave them full ownership, gave them voting power too. The capital came from them. We facilitated the whole process but gave them the freedom to make decisions.”

A video shot from Project LemmeStart Episode 10 showing a voting process in progress. (Eileen Soon pic)

Project LemmeStart took off to a somewhat shaky start however, once the trio realised they weren’t very good at baking cakes and cookies.

With their capital quickly dwindling, Soon and her facilitators knew they needed a Plan B and fast. So, after much intense brainstorming, the lunch box idea was born.

The first lunch box consisted of Lemon Garlic Chicken, vegetables, butter rice and a carrot muffin. It was such a massive hit that it sold out within two days.

Benjamin Tan with the personalised bento boxes for LemmeStart’s first Lemon Garlic Chicken sale. (Eileen Soon pic)

The team changed up the menu in August with a delicious Korean delicacy, bibimbap which consisted of a bowl of rice filled with a variety of vegetables, seaweed fried egg, Korean gochujang and fresh fruits for dessert.

“For September, one of our students suggested we sell Nasi Lemak in honour of Malaysia Day. It’s not the easier dish to make so we had to bring someone in to teach us.

“There was a lot of trial and error but we were blown away by the amazing response from the public who were so keen to buy our Nasi Lemak.”

LemmeStart’s lunch set for September, Nasi Lemak and Kombucha – all made by the students. (Eileen Soon pic)

The success of the lunch box also meant a huge learning curve for the students. Cooking was the easy part, Soon said, explaining that now the students had to overcome their anxiety of dealing with customer enquiries.

“Our students were feeling quite overwhelmed so we kept the orders at 25 pax. But when word got out and people kept on inquiring, we trainers had to gently ask them to up the numbers so that more people could try it out.

“It took a while for them to agree but now they have increased it to 35 pax and to two days a week, Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m so proud of them,” Soon exclaims.

Jennifer having her turn as cashier. (Eileen Soon pic)

Hungry customers can now place their orders for October’s lunch box which is Japanese Chicken Katsu Curry.

The box consists of crispy Chicken Katsu served alongside carrot and potato Japanese curry, rice, fresh pickled vegetables and a fluffy Japanese style omelette, all for RM 12.90 only.

LemmeStart’s October dish, Japanese Chicken Katsu Curry (Eileen Soon pic)

In November, LemmeLearn is embarking on an exciting Christmas project involving students with moderate autism. They will be selling wrapping paper designed from their very own artwork.

“We are not only anticipating to sell the wrapping paper during Christmas but to allow people to get their presents wrapped by the students,” Soon says.

“The end goal at LemmeLearn is sustainable inclusion to get the community to accept our students.

“For those who are able to secure a job, we will do all that we can to equip them with the necessary skills. For those who are not so highly skilled or lack certain work skills, they would still be able to find their own community here and have a meaningful life by learning new things and having their friends around,” Soon says.

Yi Xin slicing onions. (Eileen Soon pic)

For October, those interested in LemmeStart’s Japanese Chicken Katsu Curry Lunch Box, can place their orders by WhatsApp to any of the following individuals:

  • Yi Xin: 016-421 9217
  • Jennifer: 012-378 3114
  • Benjamin: 017-435 7730

Please include the following:

  • order quantity
  • name
  • colour and number plate of your vehicle

For more information, go to LemmeLearn’s Facebook page here.