Café JJ (formerly known as JJ’s Soup Kitchen) first opened in October 2007, and was set up by husband and wife, Joe and Val Hutchinson, whose son John has Down’s Syndrome.

The cafe operates in Clifton Community Centre, Darlington, and was set up as John was unable to continue with his catering college course because, due to the learning disability that he has, he was unable to sit exams.

Along with his friend, John Shepherd, who also has Down’s Syndrome and attended the same catering course at college, John Hutchinson has changed the way non-disabled people perceive disabled people through providing a café based facility for local residents, which also serves as a community meeting place.

When the cafe launched in 2007, the initial idea was to make homemade soup and paninis to sell to visitors in the Clifton Centre. However, over the years the café has grown, the menu has grown and the number of customers has grown – so much so that Joe and Val now support a team of ten disabled people (known as “Team JJ”) to run the café, providing an extensive menu and producing delicious meals.

Each Team JJ member has a special skill in the kitchen. One team member, Louise Hindmarch, is renowned for her delicious cake-making skills, whilst another member, Cheryl Cordier, is commonly known as “Pizza Princess”. In addition to this, all of the lads from Team JJ – which include Jon Hardman and Ian Fletcher as well as the two Johns – are famed for their light pastry making technique.

The rest of the group is made up of Claire Brookbanks, Natasha Nicholson, Emma Watson and Hayley Roberts, with each and every Team JJ member contributing between five and fourteen voluntary hours on a weekly basis. Through the help of support workers, Team JJ are allowed to produce good quality food items to serve to customers on a Tuesday and to deliver to office workers for lunch on a Wednesday.

Whilst it is great that Team JJ provide such an appetising service to a wide selection of locals, it is not just tasty treats that keep the customers coming back. Team JJ have built a real sense of community spirit as well as an avenue which allows other community groups such as Darlington Association on Disability, Darlington Police Community Neighbourhood Watch Unit, Healthwatch and Stop Domestic Abuse to regularly visit the café to hand out leaflets and advice to customers on different issues.

The work of Cafe JJ has demonstrated what people with learning disabilities can achieve when barriers are removed.  In turn, Team JJ’s hard work has inspired other disabled people to get involved with the community, to help others and to gain skills.

Last year, Team JJ were recognised as Community Group of the Year in Darlington Evolution Excellence Awards and it is absolutely no surprise that they are in the frame for the Community Organisation for Disability award at The National Diversity Awards 2014, as their determination and genuine talent resonates both positivity and inspiration.