I volunteer on the Night Van, a caravan equipped as a mobile kitchen. The van is set up in the Wiimali Park on Saturday nights where the volunteers cook sausage and steak sandwiches as well as making tea and coffee for people who are sleeping rough, poor, or unable to cook for themselves. We also get occasional customers who simply want a quick ‘feed’. Sometimes we cook for as few as five people and at other times, mostly in winter, we may cater for twenty five-or-so. I can recall one bitter winter’s night when we had around forty people and not many volunteers- so it was a hard ‘shift’. Usually we set up at around four in the afternoon and we work until all the meat has been cooked and eaten and the van has been cleaned and packed up. Some evenings, usually during summer, we get away at around six o’c lock but cold winter nights usually extend our working time.
The van is funded jointly by the Wiimali Diocese of the Catholic Church and the Council. All the workers are volunteers and we have quite a few of them at the moment. This means we only work every couple of months-or-so. I am not a particularly religious person but I am happy to help out with this project given its obvious humanitarian benefits. Over recent years I have seen a range of clientele from refugees, people with a mental illness, people with disabilities, the local prostitutes, and people who have recently been using substances of various sorts. I usually try to speak with some of the mentally ill folk; often because I have met them in my former ‘day job’ a mental health nurse. The idea here is to engage with the person, particularly if they are withdrawn or overly suspicious, so that they will feel comfortable about visiting the night van when they need to.
I enjoy working on the van and I am happy that there are people who didn’t go hungry, at least for one night of the week, because of the efforts of the van volunteers. I also like and respect my co-workers because their efforts are like a vote of confidence to their clientele.
Of course there are people who don’t like the night van or the ‘ types’ of people it attracts. There were a few negative letters to the editor published in the Wiimali Chronicle just before Christmas last year which were a bit of a disappointment. (Scrooge lives!) Typical of Wiimali, however, the supporters of good deeds prevail: a local company lets us set up on their premise during winter when we need to move out of the park; we get bread and cakes free from a local food outlet; local businesses provide us with hot water when our electric urn doesn’t work; and we have more volunteers each year. You’ve gotta love this town.
The dark side to the night van is, of course, the social problems and hardships endured by its clientele. Sleeping rough is no picnic. There is a sort of middle class angst that takes hold if you are not careful (“How can this sort of thing happen in a place like Wiimali?”) In my view the trick is to stay positive and have faith that people make changes in their lives especially when others show faith in them.
Story by Charles