The Cafe Of Smiles
Although Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, it is the most sparsely populated and second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Hardship is a looming shadow over this country with an estimated 45% of the population living below the poverty line which, needless to say, has a much lower threshold than in the United States or other “first-world” countries. Add high unemployment and under-employment levels for able-bodied citizens and guess what happens to people with disabilities?
There are few services or opportunities for people with disabilities in Nicaragua’s countryside and so Granada, which has a special education school and some educational options and NGO programs, is a gathering place for families with members who are disabled.
Which brings us to el Cafe de las Sonrisas, the Cafe of Smiles. With a little digging we found that it is the first coffee shop in the Americas and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by people who are deaf and mute. The home of Smiles Coffee is located behind an unassuming entrance on Calle Real Xalteva in a large colonial building with a beautiful interior garden courtyard filled with a variety of plants and a central fountain. Surrounding the courtyard are tables on one side, walls covered with images of the international sign language and an adjacent hammock workshop and showroom. After ordering one’s coffee or a simple Nicaraguan-style meal from the menu and cards, which are designed to assist customers in communicating with the staff, you can wander over to the workshop areas. The numerous large and open-air work stations create a pleasant and interesting waiting experience where one can watch employees weave brilliantly colored hammocks.
The signature quality product, called The Never Ending Hammock, symbolizes the goals of: 1) providing employment for the disabled of Nicaragua and, 2) highlighting an environmental focus on recycling plastic bags, the raw material from which the hammocks are made.
The cafe is the latest addition to the Social Center Tio Antonio and is an inclusive educational and employment center for persons with disabilities. The founder, Hector Ruiz, is a Spanish emigrant who has made his home in Nicaragua following a foray in Costa Rica as a restaurateur. Early in his time in Nicaragua he met a man who was deaf and mute and began to help him by locating a teacher.
Soon he was introduced to several other persons with similar disabilities and his efforts to assist with their education grew until he required a funding source to continue. Aided by a local hotel, he opened a business to teach job skills and employ persons with various disabilities to make and sell beautifully crafted hammocks which has subsequently morphed into Tio Antonio Centro Social. The non-profit business, within the context of a community center, offers support to the hearing and visually impaired population in the areas of education, health care and dignified employment
The goal of Tio Antonio is nearing fruition: building self-sustaining businesses that flourish based upon product excellence and first-rate service. Customers return and bring their friends and recommend the shop to others because of the beauty, quality and value of the hammocks, the tasty fresh fruit drinks, satisfying, typical-style Nicaraguan meals and the whole-bodied flavor of the coffee. In addition to the above, the knowledge that one is supporting a truly worthy endeavor nearly guarantees a smile pasted on the mug of the customers as they leave el Cafe de Sonrisas.
By Anita and Richard, February, 2014