“She was a fantastic friend and I was really, really lucky,” Rosa Monckton tells PEOPLE

By Simon Perry
Updated October 12, 2016 01:19 PM
Courtesy Rosa Monckton

When Princess Diana‘s close friend Rosa Monckton recently entered a pub unannounced to visit her daughter Domenica Lawson, she was overcome with emotion.

Seeing the 21-year-old, who was born with Down syndrome, working behind the bar recently filled her with pride —and tears.

“She wasn’t expecting me and it really made me cry,” Monckton tells PEOPLE. “I was really moved, because it’s what you want – for her to be independent but to be safe.”

That is exactly what Monckton is trying to achieve with Team Domenica, her new charity aimed at helping young adults with learning disabilities.

In a grand old building close to the sea in Brighton, England, Domenica and 20 other participants are taking mathematics and English classes, along with what Monckton calls “curriculum enrichment” such as drumming, while downstairs a café provides valuable work experience. The employment course is tied to local companies, who will help provide jobs and internships for the candidates. (Six are already lined up for placements next month.)

For Domenica, who is one of Princess Diana’s goddaughters, the program has been a great boost. Sitting in the sunlit café, she says, “I’m going to try everything. I am so happy! I find it amazing.”

Andrew Hasson

After Domenica’s birth, it was Diana who had been her earliest encourager. Monckton and the late royal had been introduced by a mutual friend, and the pair grew close after Monckton welcomed her first daughter, Savannah, in 1993. (Diana even gave her Prince William’s Silver Cross stroller.)

“When Savannah was born [Diana] said, ‘I always wanted a girl,’ ” Monckton recalls. “She’d been given a set of ballet shoes, and she gave them to Savannah and they hang in Savannah’s bedroom all signed. She was a fantastic friend and I was really, really lucky.”

Team Domenica’s roots began when Monckton, 62, was told by one of her daughter’s teachers that while they train the young people, not enough companies will employ them. “I looked into the statistic and there are 1.4 million people with a learning disability, and only 6 percent with an employment record,” she says. “So I sat down and said, ‘What can we do?'”

The solution, says the jewelry executive, is “focusing on life skills. I want every single person to fulfill their potential, whatever that may be.

“There maybe some people who may only be capable of putting a knife on the table and another who might be able to be a barista,” she adds. “Somebody might be good at meeting and greeting and somebody else might just be able to wipe – while all the time honing social skills.”

Now about a month in, the participants are beginning to make food for the café. “We started with teas and coffees and now the lemon drizzle cake’s coming downstairs and the rock scones,” says Monckton. “To see the pride on their faces and the excitement when someone buys a piece of lemon drizzle cake is just fantastic.”

As she made a speech welcoming supporters to the charity recently, “somebody came up to me and said, ‘Diana was on your shoulder there,’ ” she recalls. “That was such a sweet thing to say.”