Merry Christmas to all celebrating! Across most of Europe (Britain aside), Christmas festivities peak tonight, not tomorrow. Families come together and sit down for a traditional dinner to mark the occasion, which in France is known as “Le reveillon de Noel” and in Germany, “Heiliger Abend”. In Italy, especially Sicily, the tradition is a multi-course sea food dinner – the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Even among the nonreligious there, Christmas holds special significance because it’s the coming together of family and tradition. We humans are totally social creatures, and the warmth of close connections and the feeling of belonging can be as nourishing as the spread of food on the table.
Sadly, not everyone enjoys festive occasions with family. The British poet Lemn Sissay, chancellor of the University of Manchester and the 2012 Olympic poet, divides the world into two groups: one revelling in festive joy in a warm home, while the other looks in from outside, as in a Victorian cliche.
Because Sissay grew up in children’s homes and foster care, Christmas was always a difficult time. He now organises “Christmas Dinner” for hundreds of youth leaving care to create “positive memories”.
Since Christmas is imbued with a spirit of charity and giving, I’d like to highlight a local effort to feed those alone on the far fringes of society here – the homeless.
In Kuala Lumpur alone, thousands of people live on the streets. Some were abandoned by their families, some ran away from violent homes while some are there because they can’t afford a home. For them, a side street may be all that is “home”; family may be in the distant past and food is literally hand-to-mouth.
Yet amidst this bleak backdrop, there is a place they can go: the Pit Stop Community Cafe in Jalan Tun H.S. Lee. Every evening, six days of the week, the cafe feeds between 180 and 260 homeless people (see main image above). By day, it is a busy catering service and a collection/delivery point for food.
In the first eight months alone of this year, the cafe served 32,000 people. But Pit Stop does more than simply serve food. In throwing open its doors to the homeless, it offers a refuge, a heart, a helping hand.
Joycelyn Lee, a cofounder of the cafe, says, “It’s not about just giving someone food. It’s about giving them their dignity back.” This can come from something simple, like the power of choice. The cafe’s street clients choose their own food and can pay what they can if they want to.
The cafe also “feeds minds” with training sessions in hairdressing and English. A culinary programme offers training, internships and job placements to the homeless as well as urban poor.
“But we leave it to them to approach us – we have spread the word that we find jobs and have training programmes, not just with us but with other organisations as well,” says Lee. That way, they train “only those who want it”. Again, the power of choice. And giving a hand up, not a hand out.
Among the cafe’s current staff, two were formerly on the streets. A former chef who had worked in London is in the kitchen team.
The substantial costs of running the initiative are alleviated by a “food rescue” programme, which uses wasted (but still edible) food. Pit Stop works with nonprofits Kechara and the Food Aid Foundation to help put the fraction of the 15,000 tonnes of food wasted daily in the country to good use.
Pit Stop aims to be a hub for people to help others. People can donate in many ways, including an entire dinner service, at RM1,500. During Deepavali, someone provided string hoppers and dhall. Someone has sponsored the food for tomorrow. There are also options for people to sponsor meals (at RM6 each) at another food kitchen, Feed the Needy, which runs out of Chow Kit. The plan is to have more such options in future.
The aim is to “feed” stomachs, minds and hearts of anyone that needs nourishment, which includes feeding the hearts of volunteers and contributors. This in turn builds platforms connecting people. Says Lee, “It’s about bringing together and building a community of people from all walks of life who want to help make our world a better place and to that end, we are succeeding.”
The posts left behind on the cafe’s Facebook page (facebook.com/pitstopcafekl) are testament to this. Shafiq Kassim says his experience volunteering was “nothing short of amazing”. Y.C. Ang writes: “A sanctuary not just for street friends, but volunteers too.”
Sazly Marhusin writes: “It was the most humbling experience of my life ... I was moved close to tears when I realised that this place was the only refuge for many street people.... Thank you for helping me reconnect with my humanity.”
For those who would like to volunteer, contribute, provide donations or offer corporate sponsorships, see the Simply Giving web page: simplygiving.com/Social/pitstop. More information on the Pit Stop Cafe can be found at: pitstopcafekl.com.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at email@example.com.
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