From homeless to living her best life. This is how Janelle found the job that changed her life

Monday, 24 October 2022

Five years ago, the idea of having a job, let alone a place to live, felt like an impossible dream for Janelle.

She was homeless and alone, in the midst of a mental health and drug crisis.

Today, you’ll find Janelle busy serving up coffees, sandwiches, and croissants at Benny’s Café in the Caboolture Business Hub. Home to over 6000 workers, Janelle is the smile at the front counter, brightening everyone’s morning with their daily caffeine hit and her loud, contagious laughter.

Watching Janelle behind the coffee machine, there’s no doubt she absolutely loves her job; Benny’s Café is her happy place.

“Five years ago. No way did I think I’d be here now. No way,” Janelle said.

“Five years ago, honestly, I tell you right now, I think I was sleeping in a swag at the park down there at the river. ‘Cause I’d lost my home, lost the kids, lost everything.

“I had nowhere to live, didn’t want to put my burden on anybody else. So, I knew this Elder and he used to ride a push bike around and we used to go to the CCA [Caboolture Community Action]. It was right here.

“I used to shower there. I used to sleep in a swag down there, come up with my pushbike, have a meal. I knew where every meal place was that you could go for food and everything.

“That was me five years ago. I actually experienced a whole different life doing that. I was on the street.

“That part of my life is embarrassing.”

The moment everything changed

It all started when Janelle’s mother died of cancer at 49 years old.

As a single mother without any family or support network here in Australia, Janelle spent years juggling grief, domestic violence, PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance misuse, incarceration, and homelessness, all whilst fighting to get her children out of foster care.

Over the years, Janelle worked her way through many support services and providers. She jumped from service to service, provider to provider, struggling to find someone out there that would listen and help.

Just over one year ago, Janelle was referred to a not-for-profit Disability Employment Services (DES) provider called EPIC Assist.

EPIC Assist (EPIC) helps people with disability and mental health conditions find and keep a job they love. It’s also where Janelle said she met the people that saved her life.

“When I found EPIC, that was life changing. It was the perfect fit,” Janelle said.

Meeting with her EPIC Employment Consultant for the first time, Janelle knew instantly everything was about to change.

“He really understood me and I just was like, wow, you’ve really given me a chance here, mate. And he was just lovely. He helped me in so many different ways. Just being able to get around, give me go cards and stuff like that.

“He just sits there and just listens and he understands ’cause he’s been through things as well.

“I love these people. If it wasn’t for these guys. I don’t know where I’d be.”

A new chapter identified

Janelle had spent the previous ten years living without any valid identification. Unable to prove her identity, it was a vicious cycle that kept her trapped with limited access to housing, employment, government and medical services, and banking.

With EPIC’s help, they devised a carefully organised plan. Phone calls and doctors’ visits were scheduled to the minute. After painstaking preparation, Janelle was able to get her ID for the first time in ten years – opening up an entire new world of possibilities.

It wasn’t long before everything fell into place.

When EPIC told Janelle she’d got the job at Benny’s Café, she was shocked.

“I didn’t think I was worth anything. I didn’t think that I would ever work again or anything. I wasn’t doing it. But I can. I can do it. I just have to put my mind to it,” Janelle said.

“So I gave it a shot. I was really scared. Every day I was working myself up and I was making myself sick before I even come in here.

“The whole night before, I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta work tomorrow. Oh, I hope I don’t stuff up, I hope I don’t do this wrong.’ And that’s all that would go through my brain.

“It doesn’t do that anymore! I don’t do that anymore. And I just get to work. I’m actually excited to come to work every day. I’m here at like 8:30 sometimes, really early.”

Working in hospitality is a completely new world for Janelle: coffee art, food safety and storage, cooking, and customer service. Janelle said she wants to learn it all.

Her face lights up when she talks about all the new skills she’s picking up. But the one thing that stands out to her is using the commercial vegetable cutting machine.

“I love it! I love using that thing! That’s my job – I do the carrots and that. It’s like the smallest thing, but I love it. It’s brilliant.

“I didn’t know how to use any of that stuff beforehand. I didn’t know how to. Some of the things I’ve learned food wise, like chicken: how long you can hold chicken for? How long can you have ham in the fridge? I’m forever asking questions.”

Jimmy and Janelle behind the counter at Benny's Cafe
Janelle and Jimmy at Benny’s Cafe

A promising future

After so many years of hard work to get to where she is today, Janelle says she is enjoying her new life and taking it day-by-day.

Clearly, she must be doing something right though, because Jimmy, the owner of Benny’s Café, has big aspirations for Janelle.

“She’s just gone up and up and up and hopefully she just keeps going up and up,” Jimmy said.

“When she first started, she was so timid, so shy. Honestly, her first week, her anxiety just went through the roof. You could see it in her. She didn’t have the confidence to do what she’s doing today, like serving these people.

“But look at her now. She knows what she needs to do every morning when she comes in. Sandwiches, croissants, whatever. And you don’t have to tell her.

“I’ve got bigger and better things in the plan that I want to make happen. So, as I said to her, there could be chances in the future to be at another shop once the empire expands.”

Working in hospitality there are always going to be days that are more challenging than others. Jimmy and Janelle have a system to work through this.

“We’ve come to the agreement that she taps us on the shoulder and just puts a hand up to go for five,” Jimmy said.

“I said to her, just go out for five. Go for a walk, ’cause that’s what I used to do when I was stressed. My head chef said that to me. Just go get some fresh air.”

For those tough moments, there’s also always EPIC, still standing by Janelle’s side.

“They’re always checking up on Janelle. And that’s one thing I love about EPIC: that contact, communication,” Jimmy said.

Finding her happy place

With work down pat , Janelle is proud to say this is the first time she has had housing in ten years.

But with her daughter, her six-month-old granddaughter, and son-in-law all living under one roof, stress can build up at home. Janelle remembers a time when she was deep in the middle of her depression.

“I got to the stage where I was actually not even leaving my room for the whole day. Just going to the toilet, not even having a shower at night. Just that’s how bad it was getting,” Janelle said.

“I don’t like being at home anymore, doing nothing. I like being here every day. I love it if I have to work every day.

“It’s my quiet time here. Getting here, coming here, it gets me away from the house. Puts my mind at ease, I suppose.”

When Janelle took a week off work recently to recover from an injury, it was clear just how far she had come.

“On those days I was like, it’s boring at home. What am I going to do? So, I’ve got the kids up and I’m like, come on then, let’s do this.

“Two months ago, I would have been really, really, negative. Negative on myself. But I can do it, mate. I’m doing it.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do that, but now I’m going every day. Woohoo! It’s working for me.”

“I wish my mum was here to see.”

The highlight of Janelle’s week is seeing her daughter, Christina, look up to her.

“My daughter is so proud of me. She wants to come in every Friday. ‘Every Friday I’m coming in and bringing the baby. I’m coming in. I just wanna see you work, mum.’”

It’s painful for Janelle to look back on those years and think of her life without a job, family, or place to call home.

But after reflecting on that time, it’s clear for Janelle how one job and one employer willing to give her a chance completely changed her life.

“You should get a job. You never know where life can take you. Just take your chances. Give it a shot. Put it out there. Give it a go. I did, and I love it.

“This is probably the best time in my life. Literally, this is probably the best chapter of my life I’ve had since my mum passed away. My levels of happiness and stuff is like, ‘I’m working. I am something!’”

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