FISH FOR EASTER: Volunteer Graham Knowles and diner Mark at Coffs Harbour Uniting Church's Soup Kitchen.
FISH FOR EASTER: Volunteer Graham Knowles and diner Mark at Coffs Harbour Uniting Church's Soup Kitchen. Trevor Veale

A haven for Coffs Harbour's homeless

IT'S the day before Good Friday and diners sit with heads down and hands clasped as soup kitchen chairman Phil Crofts leads the prayer.

Today's lunch consists of fish and chips donated from local business Molly Malones.

It's a chance for Coffs Harbour's homeless, needy - and unfortunately stigmatised - to enjoy a warm meal for Easter with company.

For the past 27 years every diner has come in with their own intricate background, but their paths unite here at Coffs Harbour's Uniting Church Soup Kitchen.

"We don't judge. If someone comes through the door and wants a meal, be my guest. All we ask is that they treat each other with respect,” said Mr Crofts.

Some diners are simply "bad budgeters” while others are sufferers of mental illness.

There are those with gambling problems, and those with drug problems.

"For the majority of these people, they come here for the social interaction. A lot of them are here five days a week.”

To say the kitchen plays a valuable role in the community is an under- statement, with meals prepared voluntarily to an average of about 55 diners a day.

Just yesterday, a total of 73 diners enjoyed a meal.

When the kitchen opened its doors back in 1990 it saw just a single diner.

Mr Crofts, a retired primary school teacher, has been part of the soup kitchen committee for around 11 years now.

He is just one of about 50 volunteers who are the driving force behind the kitchen. Each day has a different team leader, and today it's Graham Knowles.

But Mr Crofts admits it can be, on occasion, difficult to recruit new volunteers.

"Some people come to work here with the best of intentions and it doesn't quite work out, it can be a bit confronting for them,” he says.

"Today is calm, there are days where it's relatively noisy but there's a nice atmosphere, but there are days where it's relatively noisy but the atmosphere is tense.

"Sometimes something has happened outside, and some of the angst comes in with them.”

Mr Crofts has witnessed a few run-ins between diners but does not often report them to police unless violence has occurred outside the kitchen.

"We tell them, what happens in here stays in here. But once they go outside it's a different kettle of fish.

"The good thing is when some diners are having a go at each other, the other diners tell them to pipe down.”

Any diner who is seen as a particular trouble-maker is discussed within meetings between several community groups in the area every two months, such as the Neighbourhood Centre and Community Care Options.

As an outreach of the Uniting Church, Mr Crofts says that by the end of the day, despite the angst and disagreements, diners need to understand it is a Christian environment.

"Today's prayer was not usual, we don't push it in their face.”

"Apart from Easter and Christmas you'll never hear religion spoken in the kitchen. All we ask of everyone is simply to treat each other with respect.”

Running its Easter lunch for the 27th year in a row, volunteers of the soup kitchen say thank you to the community for their generous food donations.



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