In the footsteps of an angel

Published: September 4, 2006 | 4687th good news item since 2003

A decent meal and friendly chat make a big difference to Melbourne’s many homeless and disadvantaged, writes Michael Lallo, a Margaret Oats Soup Van volunteer.

‘Mate, this is the first thing I’ve had all day,” says Frank, a hulking figure clad in a blue fleece top, as he gulps down a cup of steaming vegetable soup.

Judging by the speed at which the crowd descends on the table in Collingwood’s Smith Street, it seems Frank is not the only one who’s waited until 8pm for breakfast.

Volunteers busily dole out more food. As always, all of it is eagerly received. While some onlookers appear bemused by this scene, most are familiar with the nightly ritual.

Over the course of a typical week, about 70 volunteers – from students and young professionals to retirees – will hand out thousands of sandwiches, cups of soup and pieces of fruit to the homeless and housing commission residents of Collingwood and Richmond.

The scheme is the formal continuation of the work of Margaret Oats. Until her death in 1998, the “Angel of Collingwood” was a familiar sight on these streets, distributing much-needed food and clothes from her trolley.

And as I quickly discovered when I signed up as a volunteer last year, a sympathetic ear is just as sought after as a sandwich.

Tonight, Frank wants to talk about his health problems. Myself and Laura, another volunteer, simply listen and nod, and he seems to relax after unloading his woes.

But then Laura breaks the news that she’s leaving to spend a year doing charity work overseas. Frank’s face falls and he envelops her in a big bear hug. Only when she promises to write to him does he brighten.

As Laura says her goodbyes, the rest of us pack up and pile into two mini-vans, heading off to nearby housing commission units.

Kevin, a kindly man in his 50s, say this has been a particularly tough week. “Just ran out of money,” he admits.

Matt is more upbeat, inviting us in to show off his guitar.

Karen and Tom, who look to be barely out of their teens, emerge from a fog of pot smoke to request their usual – tuna rolls and apples.

Jack, who suffers both cancer and Parkinson’s disease, has a bowl ready for us to pour soup into. “Doc says I need to eat more vegies,” he explains.

As we leave, Jack produces a jar of lollies, proud to be offering us something in return.

“Take another one for the road,” he urges.

* Some names have been changed.

Published in Charity, Community, Life, Volunteer
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