Transit – an outreach to the community

Less than 50 metres from Narre Warren train station, in Melbourne’s rapidly growing South Eastern corridor, a group of friends gather around a table to enjoy a hot, three-course lunch.   On the menu today is veggie and lentil soup, beef roast with parsnip mash and home-made apple pie with custard and cream.

Laughing at each other’s stories and good naturedly teasing each other, these friends interact like they’ve known each other for years.

Yet, this happy scene is taking place in Transit – a soup kitchen which offers a hot meal, groceries and companionship to up to 100 of the most marginalised and lonely in Narre Warren and surrounding suburbs each week. 

One of the members, Graeme, has been coming along to Transit since it started three and a half years ago.  With a past criminal history, Graeme has struggled to feel part of the community again.  At Transit, Graeme has received not only a hot meal, but through its loving team of volunteers a new sense of acceptance and grace.

Transit Coordinator, Reverend Keith Vethaak, says Transit is based in a converted factory next to Narre Warren train station and a short walk from the local caravan park.

“When we noticed the growing number of homeless and disadvantaged people living and hanging around the local train station and caravan park, we felt that we had to do something to provide a safe, warm, non-threatening place for them to enjoy a free, nourishing meal,” says Keith. 

Transit opened its doors in May 2009 with 12 people attending. Today, Transit is bursting at the seams with up to 70 people coming each Wednesday to enjoy companionship, conversation and a free ‘home-cooked’ style three- course meal. 

“One of our first regulars was a young teenage girl who was pregnant and wanted to make sure her baby was receiving enough nourishment.  Many others are living with a mental illness, disability or addiction,” says Keith.

SHARE has supported Transit with a $6500 grant which has enabled it to open a new outreach, Transit Nights, at 6pm each Monday.  Transit Nights provides a free meal and groceries to struggling local families, many of whom do not feel safe taking their children to outdoor soup vans at night.  Just months after its launch there are 105 people eating and getting groceries of a Monday night.

“We are so thankful for SHARE’s support.  It means so much to us to have SHARE and its supporters provide us with the means to reach out to more people in need,” said Keith.

Transit Nights is a great example of SHARE funds supporting newly emerging needs in local communities.  Without the generosity of donors there wouldn’t be a safe place for struggling families to receive assistance at night.

A place of friendship and support for people in need

A brighter future

Throughout her teenage life, Natalie’s father was extremely violent. The only place she could find solace was on the street, where she began taking drugs. Before long she had dropped out of high school and was selling her body.

Now Natalie has her own teenager, Jason, and a very violent ex-partner. She wants to give her son the opportunity she never had and is trying to clean up her life. But the violent ex-partner bashed her so badly that she has almost totally lost her sight. When Wimmera UnitingCare was called in – Natalie was desperate.

The program workers spent many months with Natalie working through problems. It was a slow process as she had been dealing with deep-seated psychological issues.

The ex-partner also assaulted Jason so Child Protection and Family Services became involved. To begin addressing their concerns, Natalie moved away with Jason to live out of town. Family Services assisted Natalie and Jason to get back on their feet and reconnect with their local community. Staff at Wimmera worked closely with Child Protective Services providing strong advocacy for the family to be kept together.

They provided the support of Wimmera’s financial counselling service, and also made it possible for Jason to return to school by providing his uniform and assisting with school grants to keep him engaged.

Today Natalie is much better. Jason is in school. They both have three meals a day and Natalie sees a counsellor every week. The future for this family is looking brighter.

The names of the clients have been changed as requested by Wimmera UnitingCare.

From the lower depths to Shakespeare

St Kilda’s busy strip of shops in Carlisle Street is known for its eclectic mix of young professionals, buskers and hipsters – set amongst the more tempered milieu of the homeless.

The vibrant community hub has found a way to combine these unique characteristics into a creative partnership.

Melbourne theatre company Inotrope, collaborated with the St Kilda UnitingCare Drop In Centre in creating an acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

It was thought regular visitors to the drop-in centre who suffer from an array of drug, alcohol, physical and mental health problems would add some grit to Gorky’s classic play depicting the most impoverished and marginalised in society.

“Since then it’s been a story of collaboration from start to finish,” Sharon Kirschner, who established the drop-in centre’s drama group three years ago, says.

“From the outset of putting this production together both groups workshopped and discussed the themes of journey and reality and the idea of a good society.”

Not surprisingly the close knit community amongst visitors and staff at the drop-in centre has fostered an environment that encourages all involved to flourish despite difficult circumstances.

“Participants are given an opportunity to move away from seeing themselves as patients towards someone who can contribute and give something back,” St Kilda UnitingCare CEO Shane Lawler says.

“I’ve seen people who when first met were unable to string a sentence together – let alone be up on stage performing in a professional production.”

“The audience can’t tell the amateurs from the professionals. It has been a transformation that takes people out of their daily lives and gives them an opportunity to be recognised in a different light,” Mr Lawlor says.

For long stretches of time Mark, a regular visitor to the drop-in centre, found it simply unbearable to face the outside world. Struggling with serious health problems, being a part of the drama group has given him a much needed link to mainstream society.

“It was a reason to get out of bed and makes you feel important. Even just getting you active in that fun and laughing environment. There is always lots of laughter when we get together,” Mark says.

“Opening night was outstanding and so emotional, it was a feeling I’ve never felt before.”

The production received national media exposure and a string of acclaimed sell-out performances were held at Theatre Works in Melbourne.

“The performances have allowed people to redefine themselves as actors and not patients,” Ms Kirschner said.

In many ways this unlikely partnership embodies much of SHARE’s work in its ability to partner with an array of seemingly disparate groups to achieve something special where it is needed most.

Not just a good feed

Providing physical nourishment for people suffering financial hardship is a key component of many of the programs SHARE supports. While this is a critical factor for people struggling to survive, it can sometimes be the psychological nourishment that makes all the difference.

This is demonstrated by Brad, a regular client of ‘Good Grub’, a free lunch program run by UnitingCare Community Options and funded by SHARE.

Brad is a gifted pianist who has studied music to a high level. He can play in a way most people would be prepared to pay money to hear.

Brad is also homeless, and Good Grub provides him with not only a meal but the opportunity to play the piano to an appreciative audience. This draws him back each week and he looks upon it as a busking gig. Often the volunteers put some money in his cap, as if he were playing on the street. A piano is a bit unwieldy for that.

Sometimes he comes to the hall earlier and practices. His time on the piano, often more than an hour, feels like a form of therapy for him.

On Christmas Day, Brad played as though the more than 60 people having lunch were at a fancy restaurant.

He was able to team up with a singer to lead carol singing and together they really helped bring some joy to those for whom Christmas may otherwise have been bleak.

The encouragement Brad gets during his time at Good Grub helps him maintain a sense of dignity and awareness of his beautiful talent.