Stasia Dabrowski, known to generations of Canberrans as The Soup Lady, has died at the age of 94. She spent decades serving homemade soup from her corner in Garema Place to all comers, whatever their needs.
She’d run the weekly soup kitchen since 1979, continuing with dogged determination well past retirement age and earning a debt of gratitude from many for whom she epitomised kindness.
Stasia greeted everyone who approached her with generosity and without question, including those who were struggling, and even when her help was met with aggression.
In 1996, she was named Canberra Citizen of the Year, in 1999 ACT Senior Australian of the Year and in 2017 ACT Local Hero of the Year. She was also made an OAM in recognition of her contribution to the needy. A plaque bearing her name was installed on the ACT’s Honour Walk in 2005.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr has paid tribute to Stasia, telling Region Media “I was saddened to hear of Stasia Dabrowski’s passing.
“Stasia made a significant and sustained contribution over almost four decades to helping Canberrans in need through her Soup Kitchen in Garema Place. She gave so much of her life to this city she called home.
“Stasia will always be remembered as part of Canberra’s rich fabric, and her legacy will continue through her friends, family and supporters”.
It was a long journey from Stasia’s childhood in Poland, where she was born in 1926 near the Czechoslovakian border. Before the start of World War II, her family fled Ukrainian ethnic cleansing, then faced subsequent Nazi and Communist invasions.
They lost everything and suffered significant privations, often living without running water, heating or enough food. But beyond the hardship, Stasia remembered a warm and supportive family and the importance of that for survival.
Stasia eventually arrived in Canberra in 1964 with her husband and young family, although her struggles continued after the marriage broke down and her family faced multiple personal challenges.
She began helping others after a conversation with her teenage son about homeless people here in Canberra reminded her about the experiences she’d endured during the war years. Helping others gave her a purpose in life and a way to give back to Canberra.
“No pen could write what I saw in my life,” she said in a 1992 interview with The Canberra Times. “When I see a person who is hungry today I couldn’t go without doing something about it.”
For many years, Stasia rose at 5:00 am and drive her van around Canberra, collecting donated food from companies, then distributed it. Fridays were soup days, and Stasia spent Thursday nights peeling and cooking 180 kilograms of vegetables. She often served 100 people or more with soup and funded the venture at her own expense.
Canberra responded with equal warmth.
In 2017, Stasia wrote off her food van while making deliveries – at the age of 91 – and within days close to $35,000 had been raised for a replacement van via a GoFundMe crowd-funding campaign.
Organisers were then approached by someone who wanted to donate a van, meaning all of the money raised could go towards upgrading the soup kitchen and helping the needy.
ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay, who for many years ran the Uniting Church’s Kippax Centre, said: “We have many people across our community who are dedicated to improving the lives of those doing it tough. That’s one of the things that makes Canberra the strong society that it is.
“Stasia Dabrowski was an outstanding example of that. For many years she put her own time, her own resources into supporting people. Although she never sought acknowledgement and was uncomfortable with it when it came, she was recognised for her dedication.
“We are in her debt and will miss her”.
Canberra artist Jenny Blake, who painted Stasia’s portrait, recalls her as “a hardworking, feisty delight.
“She was of small stature but had a giant personality”, Jenny told Region Media. “Stasia’s generosity inspired me to paint her portrait. She was so humble and wondered why anyone would want to paint her.
“We have lost a hard-working big-hearted women who dedicated her life to helping others”.
The soup kitchen now operates from the Griffin Centre, in compliance with food safety regulations. It’s now operated by her grandson Josh Kenworthy, a plumber by trade, who continues to self fund its operations and will honour her legacy.