The parents of a young man with Down Syndrome have made an incredible move to set up his future after he faced constant setbacks when looking for work.
Danijela and John Vrkic, from Canberra, decided to leave their respective careers behind to build a business inspired by their 19-year-old son, Anthony.
Four years ago, Krofne Canberra first popped up as a small doughnut stall at Kingston Foreshore’s Old Bus Depot Markets each Sunday.
“Krofne was formed because of my beautiful son Anthony,” Mrs Vrkis, a mum-of-three, said.
“Imagine being a school leaver and having your whole life ahead of you, the hardest choice for you should be which door to open, but when you actually try those doors, one after the other, it’s locked.”
“My husband and I were genuinely concerned about his future,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
Mrs Vrkic got to work armed with her traditional Croatian family recipe for ‘krofne’, or doughnuts, that stems back over four generations.
The former public servant tested the market by sharing her homemade krofne at her previous office with colleagues and friends.
“My mother used to make them [krofne] for me when I was growing up, she had a special recipe - it is still my mum’s recipe that we are making today,” she said.
“The first thing we did was test our product at my work. Word quickly got around and soon people were coming up to me saying, ‘can you make doughnuts for morning tea?’”
Starting up a social enterprise
Mrs Vrkic’s krofne was a certified hit and after coming across Melbourne’s iconic American Doughnut Kitchen at Queen Victoria Market during a southern trip, her husband John suggested Krofne Canberra could take a leaf out of their playbook.
“My husband said to me, I think we can do something like this,” Mrs Vrkic said.
Today, Krofne is a much loved, well-known family business and social enterprise in Canberra.
After four years in business, there are Krofne Canberra pop-up shops at a number of shopping centres across the ACT, a strong social media following, and an online store where their fresh, handcrafted, baked goods are available.
Not only is Anthony the face of Krofne Canberra and their star sales representative manning the front counter - he is also fully involved in the production and distribution of the delicious treats.
Their ‘doughnuts for a difference’ has highlighted how important it is for people with a disability to feel valued and included in the community.
“A lot of us take for granted that we can get up and get to go to work,” Mrs Vrkic said.
“This business has made me realise that what we are doing is really special.
“From this, came a training course called KINECT.”
‘Baking a difference’ with KINECT
As Krofne Canberra plans for expansion into New South Wales and Victoria in the future, Mrs Vrkic wanted to do more.
She teamed up with Lorcan Murphy, CEO of Whitmur Business Advisory Pty. Ltd., to create the KINECT program, which has recently received federal government funding.
“I’m very proud to say that we’re piloting this program with Austrade.”
“This particular training program is specifically designed for people that are neurodiverse, but we’re looking at expanding that,” she said.
The goal of the specially designed KINECT program is for participating employers to be confident in the adaptations required when employing people on the autism spectrum, and to prepare job seekers with a disability for work that fits well with their skills and interests.
“It’s very, very, very difficult for people with a disability, especially those with an intellectual disability, to find any type of work,” Mrs Vrkic said.
“Given an opportunity to talk wherever I can to speak, to show people what I do, what Krofne does, what my family does... it can change a lot of perceptions and a lot of attitudes,” she said.
“We’re a very small fish in the sea, if our business can do it, why can’t other people?”
On Thursday, the International Day of People with Disabilities, Mrs Vrkic was invited to speak at Parliament House about her experience building Krofne Canberra, developing the KINECT program, and the inspiration for it all - her son Anthony.
Mrs Vrkic prides herself on making employment accessible. As the co-creator of a unique, disability-inclusive, family business, and social enterprise that has generated employment opportunities for people with special needs, she is an incredibly passionate advocate for inclusivity.
“I think people should really try and understand that just because somebody has a disability, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t work,” she said.
“If everybody just opened one door for one person with a disability, it would make such a huge difference.”
“What I’d like to see is for Australia to be very, very inclusive - that every organisation understands and employs somebody with a disability,” Mrs Vrkic said.
“That’s my goal.”
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