VOLUNTEERS at a charity shop have been accused of being less than charitable to a woman with learning difficulties who was asked to stop helping at the store after a co-worker said she should be in an asylum.
Michelle Pestano, 25, who lives with her parents Ean and Linda in Third Avenue, Bexhill, has Down’s syndrome and is also severely autistic, but last year was found a placement at Age UK’s shop in Battle High Street to boost her confidence and life experience.
She worked at the store for just 90 minutes a month.
Her mother told the Observer: “It was arranged through Autism Sussex at nearby Tills Yard in Battle which Michelle regularly attends. She gets one-to-one help from a specialist carer and was being accompanied by her during her stints at the shop.
“To be honest, she’s very limited in what she can do - for instance, the manager was marking up prices in pencil for Michelle to go over in pen - but she got a lot from it and clearly felt she was making a contribution.
“My husband, who is an electronics engineer, even bought some brown wages envelopes and put a little cash in them so that Michelle believed she was earning something for her work, even though it’s voluntary and, in Michelle’s case, had been arranged for her benefit.
“To her it was like being her dad, going out to work and bringing home money for the family, and so it was quite fulfilling for her.”
Mrs Pestano said the arrangement had worked well for several months, but then in October last year Michelle was told she was not wanted anymore and should not come to the shop.
“I tried to find out why and it seems that certain bigoted people objected to her presence and had said she should be in an asylum. I couldn’t believe such ignorance in this day and age, and it made me wonder just why they’re volunteering for charity work.”
Mrs Pestano said she was not aware of any difficulties with Michelle’s behaviour and stressed that she was with a carer at all times to help her cope. She added: “I just feel very hurt and disappointed for her sake. Being in the shop was something she looked forward to.”
Marcia Knowles, for Sussex Autism, told the Observer: “We have no comment to add.”
Jackie Digby, director of resources at Age UK East Sussex, which runs the Battle shop, said: “We are in touch with Mrs Pestano and are following internal procedures to work with the family to resolve this situation.
“Age UK East Sussex is committed to eliminating discrimination and promoting equality in all we do, working with organisations including Sussex Autism to recruit volunteers.”