So much more than a meal

The volunteers at Newcastle charity Soul Café are serving up tasty meals with a huge side of heart, soul and a friendly chat for the city’s most vulnerable.

When you ask the volunteers at the Friday morning brekkie shift at Soul Café why they got up at the crack of dawn to cook and serve a healthy, hearty breakfast to vulnerable fellow Novocastrians, the answers come quickly, but are concise and well-considered.

“Because it’s the right thing,” Micah says simply. Anita adds, “It’s a great opportunity to do volunteer work alongside a fulltime job.” Chaplain Penny is inspired by her faith.

Another local, Mike, had volunteered with Soul Café a decade ago when it started out on Denison Street, gently nudged by his father who was concerned young Mike might be on a treacherous path. He stopped working at Soul Café while studying architecture at TAFE but it was never far from his mind.

Now living in the East End and working at one of the city’s best architecture firms, he realised that Soul Café had relocated to nearby Hunter Street. Coming back as a volunteer is his way of giving back.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” enthuses Melissa who works with Hunter Diversity and Inclusion Collective (HDIC), and connects Soul Café guests with potential employers, trying to open doors that might otherwise remain closed. “I feel like I can help change their mentality, one door knock at a time.”

Bill adds, “For me, Soul Café is about realising that we are all the same. You sit here, talking to these guys and you realise that their story is everybody’s story.”

And what do the guests say? When asked what Soul Café means to him, Nick, a regular, rattles off a whole list of items: “It means community and having a chat, it’s about stability and structure for the day.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds “and the food is great too.”
Most of the guests are men, many in their 50s or 60s, some are chatty, others seemingly want to be left alone. But as the volunteers serve cereal or scrambled eggs and beans on toast, they join the guests at their tables and conversations start to flow easily. There’s a relaxed, comfortable vibe, more in tune with a catch-up amongst friends than a soup kitchen.

Setting up grocery items for the Pantry Service after breakfast ends. Guests receive a warm welcome, a hot cup of tea or coffee and a hearty breakfast.

General Manager Matthew Ortiger explains, “for us it’s all about relationships. We talk to our guests, they share a story, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. Once they share their story, we start to connect, and work out how we can help.

“We see it in our work and there is plenty of research to confirm it: community and a solid support network is what makes all the difference. The Nordic countries particularly are leading the way and it really works.

“Just imagine what it’s like to have nobody to talk to, to have no money, and to see people crossing over to the other side of the street when they see you. Loneliness and isolation are a huge issue. At Soul we do our best to address it with a friendly conversation and a warm smile.”

Read more about Soul Cafe in our Winter issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Cornelia Schulze, photography Frank Schulze