Thu, 20 Dec 2018
THE scene was reminiscent of the Great Hall at Hogwarts. A dozen volunteers, kitted out in burgundy tabards, were bustling around the long tables, adding their own magical flourish to any last-minute preparation.
Others sat waiting, exchanging jokes with each other across the room, a hearty smell wafting through from the adjoining kitchen.
Stacks of bananas, wilting on top of each other, looked happy to be bruised. There were hundreds of them – piled up in two massive boxes to the side of the Salvation Army hall, beside the tea and coffee. Some were laid out on the long tables with other pieces of fruit and muffins, all ready to greet the flurry of people that would soon come through the doors to what, on every Thursday evening, is transformed into the temporary haven that is Newbury Soup Kitchen.
One woman walked around armed with a clipboard. She called the group in for a briefing ahead of what was to be – judging by the extraordinary number of bread rolls stacked up at the back of the hall – Newbury’s feeding of the 5,000.
Mum-of-three Meryl Praill set up Newbury Soup Kitchen in November 2016 after initially volunteering through the town’s food bank – prompted her family’s own brush with economic hardship during the last financial recession.
The charity provides a safe space for the town’s homeless and disadvantaged every Thursday evening from 6pm-8pm and is based in the Salvation Army Hall, Newbury, loaned to them by the local Salvation Army unit.
“I call us a dysfunctional family – I don’t know if that’s appropriate or not – but both clients and volunteers are like a family,” says Meryl. “There are people who come to the Soup Kitchen who tell us stuff they won’t tell others. We’re the only people they trust. They are not all street homeless. Some are sofa surfers and some are those who can’t afford to pay their bills or for food.”
In its nascent days, Meryl’s brainchild lived up to its name quite literally – serving only soup and beans to clients who dropped by. It was a modest offering to the homeless community of Newbury, many of whom also receive help from homeless charity Loose Ends and Eight Bells for Mental Health, both of which work in tandem with the Soup Kitchen’s aims in supporting the town’s most disadvantaged.
When Meryl’s first launched her project, 11 clients came in and there were nine volunteers. The scheme has since grown into a fully-fledged, welcoming drop-in centre that provides invaluable support every week for up to 60 vulnerable people with complex emotional and mental needs: rough sleepers, sofa surfers and those with learning difficulties who might be illiterate, among others.
An impressive total of 55 volunteers juggle a weekly Thursday rota – but the logistics of the task at hand transcend even the most menial of duties – such as scribbling CONTAINS NUTS onto a paper plate of chocolate brownies or triumphantly dolloping a portion of sausage pasta bake onto a plate.
Crates of food must be collected from pick-up points – such as Greggs and Pret a Manger in Northbrook Street who, along with Waitrose and Aldi, support the kitchen by supplying their unwanted or unsold produce. The freezers at Tesco Metro happened to break on the day I dropped by, so the store decided to cook most of its prepped bread and donate it to the kitchen.
Although the kitchen is open to visitors between 6pm and 8pm, the volunteers put in a lot more hours in order to make it work. On the previous day, some of them had undergone Naloxone training – the drug used to temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Some of the team start setting up as early as 4.15pm for a punctual 6pm opening, before the continual clean-up operation begins of clearing up plates, washing up and wiping down tables.
Among the papers nestled on Meryl’s clipboard are sheets allocating tokens for use in the town’s launderette or the shower facilities at Northcroft Leisure Centre, the latter a collaboration with West Berkshire Homeless.
Meryl also assists those who need formal documentation in order to open a bank account or access benefits and works with the Community Furniture Project, which has helped source road-safe bikes for users as well as supplying, when possible, the odd fridge or freezer.
“I thought I was going to feed people for two hours a week, turn up and go home,” laughs Meryl, who had previously run her own recruitment agency in London for nine years. “It’s not like that now. Some of them are broken, we’re just here to try and give them a lot of love.”
One of the regulars who gets a big dose of that love is Andy Brown. The 29-year-old tells me he’s slept rough in the town’s former Bayer car park since becoming homeless seven months ago, after living in Newbury for most of his life.
He pauses for an instant as he pops a whole unpeeled kiwi into his mouth.
“Hey. I’m homeless, I’m nuts and yeah – I like coming here,” he says, chomping away.
I ask what it’s like sleeping in one of Newbury’s car parks.
“Oh, I have a really big room – not many people get a bedroom as big as mine,” he quips. He moves onto a chocolate-chip muffin as I ask him his view on the soup kitchen.
He stops chewing and looks up at the volunteers, around the room, which is now punctuated with noisy conversations and harmonious laughs among volunteers and users alike.
“Oh, they’re awful,” he counters, straight-faced. He pauses, before realising I haven’t bought any of it and then continues, with his trademark irony: “Nah, they’re just here to make themselves happy, which is a great thing because I really like them too. They literally pay so much attention to me.”
We continue talking for a while, before our conversation is interrupted by a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday as a candlelit cake is brought out for one of the volunteers.
“I bet you she’s only turned up tonight because of that,” Andy says, a wide grin creeping across his face – I’m getting used to his caustic humour now.
Across the room, volunteer Phil Tudor is standing by one of the massive boxes of bananas, hands behind his back, surveying the evening’s action. Phil is one of the kitchen’s success stories. He used to be homeless himself and visited the soup kitchen often with friends, some of whom still drop by on a Thursday evening.
His own weekly visits provided a warm, happy place where volunteers gave him guidance and advice and even found him a reel and tackle so he could enjoy a favourite pastime of his, fishing. The kitchen played a pivotal role in helping Phil secure accommodation at an alms house in Donnington and the former graphic designer became inspired to give something back.
He has since redesigned the soup kitchen’s logo and now provides all the graphics for the scheme – which has helped him grow in confidence and discover a renewed sense of self-purpose.
“I was once here as a customer. I got to know everybody when I was on the street,” he said. He pauses, thinking of what he should say next, before the realisation dawns.
“I suppose they kind of look up to me in a way,” he said, somewhat taken aback by what he’s just said. “I’ve stayed in tents with a few of them and slept in car parks, so I understand their world. I was a graphic designer before, so it’s a bit of a career switch, albeit one that I’m proud of.”
Phil now works as a groundsman looking after the Donnington village and cricket field, parks and play areas, as well as picking litter.
Near the front of the hall are two of the soup kitchen’s latest recruits – Courtney Sheehan and Chandrika Chauhan.
Chandrika is holding out a tray of pasties, accompanied by a comprehensive chart detailing the different flavours. It’s Chandrika’s first evening at the soup kitchen and she and I look on with admiration at the sense of companionship and infectious camaraderie spreading across the room.
Courtney is from Canada and has been living in Newbury for a year. She started volunteering at the soup kitchen as a way of becoming more involved with the community and to meet new people.
“I’ve only been here once before – I started last week – but when I walked in tonight, a few people remembered my name. I’m loving it. You get a real feelgood factor from it.”
I sidle over to the kitchen, peep my head through the door and find the woman whose birthday it is.
Head chef at the soup kitchen Jan is a long-time friend of Meryl and volunteered with her at the food bank, pre-soup kitchen era. Unlike most of the volunteers who wear name badges, Jan has embroidered hers onto her tabard – a telling sign that she plays an integral role in the soup kitchen.
Her bouncy personality shines through the ‘cheap and cheerful’ dishes she rustles up for these modest evening banquets – the head count for which she currently estimates stands at around 50-60 each week.
“It’s mostly comfort food, but it depends what comes and what people give us,” said Jan, a retired nurse. “Wednesdays and Thursdays are write-offs for me [because of the food prep] – it’s full on, but I enjoy it. It’s a real community, we know them all. I’m sort of the one who has the banter with them – in the kitchen, there’s a lot of laughing, a lot of joking with the clients. I think they’re very appreciative.”
And Jan is too. Since relocating to Bucklebury from Lower Basildon four years ago, the network of friends she has made through her work at the kitchen has been nothing short of remarkable.
“I never used to know anybody in Newbury,” she said. “Now, I walk through the town and I see all this lot, they ask me what I’m cooking – they do give back as well.”
As I turn to go, she caught my eye lingering over the huge crate of bananas.
“I’ve already frozen some of them,” she sighed. “Trouble is – the freezer’s packed with other stuff.”
She delves into the box and thrusts two well-ripened bunches into my arms.
“Here – you could make so much banana bread with these.”
It was late when I arrived home, but energized by the extreme outpouring of compassion, human appreciation and community spirit I had witnessed that evening, I set to work. Spilling flour over me as I baked banana bread, part of me wished I had a tabard.
This article first appeared in the winter edition of Out&About magazine