She bakes goodies with a sprinkling of good advice
If she could, baker and trainer Chye Hui Fun would never let her apprentices leave her side.
The pastry chef at Metta Cafe works with those with special needs, preparing these young adults with not just technical but life skills that would make them employable to other companies.
“Actually for every student that goes out (to work), it’s hard for me to let go. I’ll constantly worry if they are able to adapt. After all, we will not be so hard on them here," shared the 42-year-old.
With Metta Cafe since its inception, Hui Fun has seen countless graduates from Metta School pass through the gates.
The cafe was established in 2014 to provide F&B vocational training for graduates from Metta's special-education school who have mild intellectual disabilities and/or autism.
There, Hui Fun teaches students basic skills, from mixing flour and weighing dough, to more complex tasks such as churning out pie cups.
It's a job that poses some level of difficulty for her young apprentices, not least because of the limitations they face, including sensory sensitivity and social skills.
For Hui Fun, who's not special-needs trained, the challenge lies in not really knowing how they feel, yet feeling compelled to help them.
"I really would like to know what they're thinking, and if they really understand what I'm saying," she shared.
As their trainer, Hui Fun also has to cater to the emotions of her young charges, many of whom are on the cusp of adulthood but are unable to grasp abstract social constructs or the intricacies of workplace dynamics.
Giving the example of one boy she encountered, she said: "When I first interacted with him and told him, 'Cannot do like that', he got agitated and gripped my arm very tightly.
"I had to tell him firmly, 'Ok, stop, cool down'. But after telling him, 'Ok I'm angry already ah, stop', he eventually let go."
Such incidents, however, do not constitute a huge problem to Hui Fun. Besides the occasional tantrum, if they are unable to perform a certain task, it's simply a matter of finding something else that they can do.
"I define a problem as when the trainee can't stay in the cafe, either because they are a danger to themselves or to others.
"Otherwise, every student has been able to work here," said Hui Fun.
One positive trait, she added, is that they are very hardworking. "If there's something that they need to complete, they'll just keep doing it until it's done."
NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE
As much as Hui Fun is the teacher, she believes that the relationship runs both ways.
"I feel that since they have to learn to work with me, I too have to adapt and get to know them on a personal level, to know how they operate."
What surprised her sometimes was when there were "problematic students that teachers at the school point out to us, but in the end when they come here, they actually do their work well".
"So I've learnt what may seem impossible at first is possible."
Hui Fun revealed that sometimes, it's the softer skills that they needed to learn the most, especially when "the kids", as she called them, leave the safe shelter that is Metta and step out into society to work.
Being able to "protect themselves" is one such skill, said Hui Fun. But what does she mean by that?
"Basically, they must know how to ask," she explained.
"They may be shy at first, or be fearful of admitting that they don't know something, and they'll just say that they do... so I'll tell my students, 'If you're scared, you can say I'm sorry, I'm not so sure, can you teach me?'
"I do get worried for them, that if they get scolded they'll just say, 'Yes, yes I know' (when they actually don't)."
Like a protective parent, the inclination would be to protect these young ones from the harsh realities of the world. But Hui Fun understands that wouldn't be in their best interests.
"If possible, I would want to keep them here. But I know we can't be selfish in keeping them around to protect them, because then it'll be hard for them to interact with the outside world," said Hui Fun.
"Of course, I hope that companies will hire them, although you really do need to have a bit of patience with them. But that's my biggest hope."
Hui Fun is thankful that companies have been supportive of the school's endeavours, not just in hiring students from Metta, but in ensuring that orders continue at the bakery.
One way that companies can help is by installing vending machines that offer Metta Cafe's cookies.
Said Hui Fun: "Singapore Pools is one of the first companies to install our vending machines (the other one is located at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple). I hope more companies can also follow suit so that more people will be able to buy our products.
"They are the first to allow us the opportunity to introduce our goods to a wider audience and the response has also been great."
"A lot of people will say, 'Ok, we'll buy from you, since it's a charity organisation', but after they try our goodies, they'll tell me, 'Oh, it's really delicious, I want to buy from you again!'
To Hui Fun, the feedback is a pat on the back and "a form of affirmation for my students that we can produce to such a standard". She's also heartened by the positive response to their cookies and cakes during festive periods like Christmas and Chinese New Year.
Some might worry about being swamped by work, but not Hui Fun. What stresses her out more is not having enough orders to keep her students occupied.
"Every morning when I wake up, even though I'll be stressed about the amount of work ahead, there's a feeling of achievement after every order is fulfilled. And you know it's not just yourself that's working hard, but also the kids and the people in the cafe."
DOING WHAT SHE LOVES
Rather than kindness and empathy, Hui Fun pointed out that having patience is key in her job.
"A loving heart is something a lot of people would have, but patience… you have to spend time to understand them so that they can learn."
And her patience appeared to have paid off, clearly apparent in how students still choose to work with her.
"Actually I think I'm quite tough on them and I'm the fiercest one in the cafe, but all of them still say, 'I want to work with Fen jie (Sister Fun)'."
25-year-old Cher Wei Jie is one of them. Said the apprentice, who's been training under Hui Fun since 2016: "Hui Fun is good, she's a good chef. I listen to her instructions because she taught me."
And the students' parents were often amazed by the skills that their children have picked up.
"One mother exclaimed, 'Wow, my daughter knows what's buttercream, I don't even know what's that'," said Hui Fun.
It seems Hui Fun is one of the lucky few that have found the perfect balance in "doing what I love and teaching what I love to do."
It's also a concept that she shares with her trainees. "I tell my kids, you must like the job, then you can do it well.
"Although they may not be able to really grasp the concept of loving what they do, but at least when I ask them, 'You have work to do, are you happy?', they say 'Yes'."
And like any loving teacher, she declined to name the best student, insisting instead: "They are all my best students."