On Monday I finished the last of the three shifts I’d volunteered to do for Crisis at Christmas. Based at Deptford Day Centre (the closest centre to where my Mum lives) I worked the last three days before it all ended and the centre returned to being the Lewisham LeSoCo college campus.
This was my first time volunteering for Crisis. My sister Kate, author of Exploring Art in the City and a veteran Crisis volunteer (usually based at Bermondsey but taking a year off as she’s a week away from giving birth) was the one who inspired me to sign up. She told me I’d love it and find it rewarding.She wasn’t wrong.
I wanted to volunteer last year but it didn’t happen. There were so many other life changing events going on, plus it’s not an easy task too-ing and fro-ing between Wales and London, so I have to plan my time carefully. This year it all came together, not the full seven days which I may sign up for next year, but with Christmas, kids to organise and other commitments to consider three days was the most I could manage. This year one of those kids did her own organising. Rosy my teen waitress is all grown up and has moved to London, she sofa surfs and does odd bits of work while trying to find the kind of work she wants. She will only be the teen for one more year and has had enough of Wales. She decided to stay down south for Christmas and sign-up for Crisis as well. We reunited after a month apart over the kitchen sink where we reconnected and had a great time. The work was hard, fun, tiring, emotional but ultimately the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done. I woke on Tuesday with aching legs and feet, physically drained, tearful, emotional, but still buzzing from a truly epic experience.
On day one Rosy and I arrived at the gate and within half an hour were changed, and in the kitchen. Lunch service was still ongoing; it looked busy. I was more terrified than if I’d been serving a gourmet wedding breakfast. I didn’t know what to expect.
Mary, the kitchen co-ordinator gave me a very brisk run down of procedure. I hadn’t slept much the night before and really had to hit the ground running to remember everything. Mercifully there wasn’t much evening prep to be done so I got an opportunity to familiarise myself with the kitchen, follow Mary’s lead while getting on with what needed doing. It wasn’t long before Mary broke the news to me that this was her last day, from Sunday I was the chef in charge and the kitchen co-ordinator. Shit!!!!
Dinner passed without incident but food was sparse towards the end and more people arrived than I’d anticipated. I wanted to make sure both guests (most importantly) and volunteers were able to eat, so as day two arrived I knew we had to make more.
We arrived early and this time a different chef was on duty. I started to plan for dinner as soon as I got in the door, prep needed doing so I distributed tasks among those who had arrived early and those still on duty. I made sure volunteers got a lunch break and then as the evening shift arrived I packed some of them off home. Sunil, the morning chef didn’t seem to want to go and in the end he chose to stay on until the end of the evening admitting he wanted to see how my shift went. He wanted to learn and watch. This wasn’t the first or last time I felt humbled, or proud of what we as a team achieved during my time at Crisis. With two very experienced assistants (Heather and Dave) plus Sunil, the night flew by and ran smoothly and efficiently and food was plentiful.
Day three on the other hand turned into an 11 hour epic. I’m sure the number of guests rose with every meal. At lunch it was 270. By dinner it was closer to 300, including volunteers. The team was now familiar with my mission and mantra…cook ‘shit loads’ and my kitchen assistants (an awesome, amazing, hard-working bunch without exception) stepped up to the challenge. They shredded, chopped, grated, mixed, got creative and inspired and accepted that basic food could still be tasty.
Our team had to prepare for dinner one woman down as Rosy went home sick, and no extra chef in the form of Sunil. It was hard work, we ran it up to the wire but the “Sex Pistols of Balkan brass” the Trans-Siberian Marching Band distracted the guests with their noisy, chaotic, high energy, hugely entertaining performance and bought us an extra 10 minutes to prep dinner. We were a little late, but nobody was watching the clock that evening.
I’m proud of how well we fed our guests and volunteers. Even at the final hour we managed to find meals for stragglers, like the man who hadn’t eaten in 48 hours brought in by one of the outreach workers. We accommodated extras every day like those from Bermondsey who, rumour had it, came over to Deptford as the food was better!
I met guests and got a hearty thumbs up, Heather told me I HAD to return next year or they would hunt me down and Dave told me that despite how hard it was on the last day I nailed it. Brad told me I “rocked”. Another guest told me it was “Best food all week”, while another had 6 helpings of pudding! and it was great we were able to give them six helpings!
On the last evening after service finished I took my dinner and sat in the day room. I watched some terrible karaoke, chatted to one of my kitchen assistants who was also homeless and had lived in a caravan for the last couple of years, I finally got a tour of the centre, but never quite got that briefing or debriefing. I only cried on the job once; when a teenage girl who looked like Rosy came to the counter for food. Dishevelled, thin, out of it, I realised how lucky my girl is despite her sofa surfing, to have love, safe places and a choice. I had to leave the counter. I also discovered that many of those at the day centre were not homeless, simply lonely, isolated, in need of company. Having lost a friend two days before Christmas who was lonely and depressed it really hit home how much we need people around us and I felt so priviliged to have such a close group of mates.
My sister told me I’d love it and she wasn’t wrong. What she didn’t tell me was how much I would learn, or how much it would touch and change me. I went home and cried….i’m still shedding tears and its now Thursday.
If you spot a rough sleeper in London, or any other city, there is currently SWEP provision (Severe Weather Emergency Protocols) to help find shelter during the cold weather…find out who to contact here