After a house meeting this week we had to elect those who would roster themselves on for the Dessert Van. To clarify, the Dessert Van is a program run by the Exodus Foundation in Sydney. This initiative aims at providing meals to Sydney’s struggling homeless community. At night a large van, the Dessert Van, parks itself next to Saint Mary’s Cathedral at Town Hall, this is because it’s an area with high population density and is at the geographical epicenter of a large subset of the homeless community. Participating in this program, since we are students, involved serving food, mainly dessert, as well as setting up the tables, cutlery, and utensils used as well as assisting in cleaning and packing up. Having found the first experience an enjoyable one I decided to volunteer again. Before the next Dessert Van, I thought, especially considering it’s an act of service, to reflect on the strengths, weaknesses, and lessons learned from my first involvement.
Firstly, directing my attention to the successes of the night, the serving aspect went well. I and my two other friends aligned ourselves in such a way that each one of us only served a part of the meal. For example, when serving dessert, which was apple crumble with ice-cream and jelly, each of us divided our efforts so that only one person served jelly, one person served ice-cream, and one person served apple crumble. We found this especially helpful as the conveyor belt-like system provided us with the ability to accommodate any dietary or preferential needs. For example, several people didn’t want jelly, and so we simply skipped that step when preparing their food; a service that couldn’t otherwise be provided for had we prepared the meals in advance and distributed them. This worked very well and, since I will be going with another group next time, presents prommosing outcomes as the same effect can be utilized with our new, larger group.
Thankfully we only encountered one problem whilst serving, this being many people, understandably, wanted additional servings. We had been instructed to only distribute one serving per person until everyone had been served. This was to ensure that as many people as possible enjoyed a full and balanced meal as possible. Of course, given the circumstances which these people found themselves, they were incredibly eager to return for as many additional servings as permitted. We decided to show some discretion and after everyone appeared to have dispersed and the initial rush subsided then we allowed people to return for more. Whilst, this in itself wasn’t a problem, the issue arose from dealing with angry, pushy, or incensed people who were unhappy with our response that initially explained why they needed to wait. This was compounded by the fact many people lied, claiming they hadn’t been served in an attempt to obtain more food. Afterward, we realized that marking each cup with a dash to indicate how many times that person had been served was a practical solution that we could try next time. Beyond this, we learned that calmy explaining ourselves and attempting to reason with each person worked better than presenting an authoritarian response, such as ‘no’, as it better established a relationship with each person and posed less of an ultimatum.
This links to my final point which was that after having completed the activity the main lesson I’ve learned was that chatting with those who decided to linger around the table was an excellent way to brighten their spirits. We quickly discovered many of these people use these nights as their social platform. Often shunned by members of the public when asking for donations, a genuine approach that modeled human decency and empathy allowed them to feel appreciated as it humanized them. It appeared somewhat transformative when people’s blank expressions suddenly livened up when asked how they were or what they thought about something as it involved and included them in a way they’d been perhaps isolated from due to their conditions. Furthermore, it demonstrated, to me at least, the illegitimacy of many of the stereotypes surrounding these people. Whilst some appeared to be victims of substance abuse, or possibly mentally unfit, the overwhelming majority were decent people with refined social skills that wouldn’t otherwise distinguish them from other socioeconomic peoples. Therefore, it became an enjoyable experience in firstly witnessing how easily it was to help someone, and secondly, enlightening me as to how the media’s depiction was unfair.