FINDING a foothold in the world of gainful employment is a difficult endeavour for many.

But for those with learning disabilities, the picture can look very bleak.

Recent figures show less than a quarter are in paid employment, even though an estimated 65 per cent of people with a learning disability would like a job.

Work experience for this section of society is enormously scarce.

But at Plough Corner Garden Centre and Café, in Little Clacton, around 50 people of all ages with various learning disabilities are charged with running almost every aspect of the business.

The purpose? Crucial life experience and training for its clients.

Run by Essex Cares Ltd, the centre exists to help them “feel relevant” in today’s society.

Clients can work to a level with which they feel comfortable, be it engaging with paying customers in the café or garden centre, or in the packaging department.

Clare Stalker has headed it up since October.

She said: “We provide work in a realistic environment.

“At the same time we are helping them to complete paperwork and move forward, trying to meet each individual’s outcomes.

“We want to build to the point where many can get into employment.

“We also continue to support them to the extent they want or need support further down the line.

“Some people, in reality, aren’t going to have the ability to get paid employment.

“This still gives them a feeling of self-worth.

“Everybody is assessed as to their level of need and how much they can do.

“They are all part of our community, be it someone who is more comfortable at the front of house or someone better off in our packaging department.

“Perhaps they would rather be in the garden centre learning how to use the tools, learning how to price up different products, or working in the kitchen.”

The centre has the benefit of working with the nearby Market Field School, in Elmstead Market, which cares for children with special needs.

It can offer departing pupils work experience and a pathway into the wider world.

“We are piloting ASDAN, an entry-level qualification which goes hand in hand with work,” said Clare.

“It could be a route into hospitality or customer service.

“We work with Market Field School. When they get to the stage where most would go out to do work experience, we take them on.

“It is fantastic to see that sense of pride and achievement they get from real work with real customers.”

Ten full-time members of staff and one part-time worker are on hand to guide the clients through their experience.

But staff must be prepared to adjust their treatment of the clients to meet each person’s individual needs.

Clare explained: “They will often become comfortable in the bubble we have here and want to stay.

“We need to convince people there is more to life than the bubble and they are capable of moving forward.

“It all depends on where they have been in life, and what stage they are at.

“Some people might turn up for experience with us at the age of 30.”

Clare is eager to drum up more support for the café and garden centre.

“Our function is for customers to get as big a variety of experience as possible,” she said. “Therefore, we need the general public to support us and come in.

“We have fantastic food, in a fantastic setting, and we have fantastic products.

“We are not different to any other garden centre, except we don’t need to worry about making a profit as much.

“We have competitive prices and the more customers we get the more experience they get.

“People can maybe can be a bit scared of the unknown, worried about coming to shop or eat here. It is a lovely environment to be in.

“To be honest to see the guys working, using the till and counting money, most people go away feeling nicer about themselves.”

The café and garden centre are open from 8.30am until 4pm from Monday to Friday.