The kids were playing in the park, and Dad needed a cup of coffee for the caffeine boost to keep up with his daughter. Luckily there was a café nearby – where you would least expect one. The park is a modest little playground patch in a residential neighborhood across from the funicular that hauls people up and down Mtatsminda Mountain to the amusement park and restaurant above the city. The café is on the ground floor of a Communist-era apartment block, just a couple dozen paces away. It was everything a little coffeehouse should be: warm, cozy, quiet and wheelchair accessible.
In Georgia, people with special needs have all the odds stacked against them. Last year, the Georgian Special Olympics team triumphantly returned from Los Angeles with nine medals, yet there was nobody to welcome them at the airport and not one media outlet covered this magnificent national achievement. A hostile, non-accessible environment, where cars are parked as if they were dropped by a hurricane and the streets – and sometimes sidewalks – are like Death Race 2000, keep wheelchairs away. But Rhea’s Squirrels Café is not just an oasis in a desert of indifference to those with special needs, it is a café dedicated to improving their lives.
While the Georgian government has established an inclusive education system, the policy is far from satisfactory as budgetary restraints and a deficit of professionals remain a major problem; still, it is a vast improvement from the days when children with special needs were locked away in decrepit institutions.
But those children remain some of the most vulnerable people in society, particularly those from low-income families. The government has little means for assistance, making it up to the private sector to fill the gaps.
Rhea’s Squirrels Café is dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with special needs.
The café is operated by the local NGO, Women’s Union Rhea, which operates several integration centers in ethnic minority-populated regions and one in Tbilisi. Teenagers and young adults are given vocational training and employment opportunities in the café, which also sells various handicrafts they make. Nearly half of the café’s staff have intellectual disabilities. Rhea’s director, Eliso Rekhviashvili, a vibrant, assiduous woman, says this is the first café of its kind in the South Caucasus. The name comes from the Georgian rugby team’s fan club organization, which is called the “Squirrels,” while the NGO is named for the figure from Greek mythology who is the daughter of Gaia and Uranus and the symbol of integration.
“This is a social mission and a business. And it’s a great opportunity to raise attention to the rights and interests of people with disabilities,” Eliso says.
It may be a social project, but Rhea’s, which has a catering service, is no mercy kitchen. The menu is genuinely toothsome with an emphasis on baked pastries, yet there is something for everyone. Kids love their pizza, while their soups, salads and quiches are unquestionably appetizing. Their attempt at making bagels is worth applause for the effort (the only other bagels in Georgia are at Dunkin Donuts and are basically blonde hockey pucks), and the bagel sandwiches with egg, chicken or ham and cheese are worthwhile idiosyncratic bites for the equivalent of a couple of bucks. But if you had just one reason to drop in, it would be for the spinach khachapuri.
Khachapuri is Georgia’s emblematic cheese pie. It is impossible to walk 50 meters down any given street in Tbilisi without coming across it, whether in a little grocery market, kiosk or a hole in a building. It may be may be round, oval or square and stuffed with cheese and potato, cheese and hard boiled egg or cheese inside and on top. It may look like a boat and have an egg floating on it (or may be stuffed with beans or meat, which technically is not khachapuri), but you will be hard pressed to find a pie stuffed with cheese and spinach, a recipe, Eliso says, that comes from Racha, a region high in the Caucasus mountains.
Rhea’s small pie is shoe-shaped, size 7, and the large is like a pizza big enough for four. The dough is light and flaky, reminiscent of spanakopita, but lacks that bitterness found in many Greek spinach pies. It is best paired with a glass of Laghidze water, Georgia’s old school soda water, invented in the late 20th century, which is a mix of carbonated water and flavored syrup. Rhea’s offers a few flavors, but your waitperson will undoubtedly recommend his or her favorite blend of chocolate cream, which is a winner. You may prefer ice-cold mint lemonade instead. Either way, after chasing your kids in the park next door, nothing is more refreshing.
Editor’s Note: We are so impressed with the work being done by Rhea’s Squirrels Café that we thought it was worth rerunning this article from 2016.