For people in the region who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, there is no place like St Benedict’s at Queanbeyan.
For Elaine Lollback who is the heart and soul of St Benedict’s, the community centre is her first and second home.
It is also the only home for people who have nowhere else to go.
Three new people visited the centre for the first time in the short time Region Media visited just as lunch was being served on Friday (5 June). The smell alone was inviting enough, but Elaine says no invitation is required if you need a meal.
“If people have a full belly, the world looks brighter, you can think better,” Elaine says.
“A quiet day is 30 people coming in. A busy day is 90. Our best day is when no one shows up.”
St Benedict’s has been providing free meals to those in need in Queanbeyan and region for more than 15 years. The service has evolved with the times but has stayed true to people in their greatest time of need, whether it be for friendship, advocacy, support or a meal.
In partnership with ‘HOME in Queanbeyan’, run by Anne Pratt, the centre also provides unit-style accommodation for people who stay for 10 days or 10 years.
St Benedict’s receives about $300,000 a year in government funding but also relies on donations. The kitchen wouldn’t operate if it weren’t for organisations like Oz Harvest and the donations of food and finances from the community.
Kitchen manager Tony Soldo cooks at least 70 or more meals a day, with any excess being frozen for handout on other days.
Sometimes a community cooking club arrives to deliver curries that can be reheated or frozen. Tony arrives each day from Canberra because, apart from food kitchens, there is no service that provides the kind of support provided by St Benedict’s.
“This place gives you an additional purpose in life because you’re helping someone else. I get paid, but the rest are unpaid volunteers who bring in food of their own, even though I tell them not to,” he says with a laugh.
Judy Buckham and her husband Ian are now retired, but will they never be the retiring types when it comes to making sure the kitchen has enough food for the week. Judy makes her own stock that flavours the meals – all of which are made with love and not from a jar.
“Without these volunteers, this place wouldn’t move. There’s always a need for volunteers, but there’s also a greater need for donations, whether it be money or food,” Tony said. “To find fresh vegetables every second day or so is always a challenge. I’ll try to find a whole rump of beef just to get a better cut of meat into the stews.”
Elaine said on a typical day, she receives enquiries from high schools wanting to do a food drive or local businesses who want to donate food.
“We have people who come from everywhere to help, and about 50 volunteers who help us on a regular basis. The courts, police, social and mental health workers all ring in regularly to see how they can help.
“If you’re doing it tough, you’ve got to make a choice between paying rent and buying food, so we tell people to pay for your accommodation and we’ll make sure you get food.
“But it’s more than just the food. It’s also about being connected with someone else, and the fact that you can come in and smell and see the food being cooked on-site just makes it feel like home,” Elaine said.
And she said the invitation extends to people in Canberra and the entire region. They regularly help people from towns as far away as Braidwood and Michelago.
Zoe Ryan is the assistant manager of HOME in Queanbeyan. They don’t get government funding and rely on at least $250,000 a year in donations to supply accommodation at the centre.
“HOME in Queanbeyan is a very special place. It’s a safe haven for 21 residents that live here with chronic mental illness so we want to be a loving place. It’s not just about food and shelter, it’s also about the future, so it’s important we create a home environment,” Zoe says.
“We’re non-clinical and more focused on people’s emotional needs and connecting them with the community when they need to as well.”
The family at St Benedict’s also includes Karabar Housing and initiatives delivered by a number of churches in Queanbeyan which makes them one very big, happy family.
Elaine says the community centre is her dream job, which is guided by her own faith and the work of St Francis and St Clare who abandoned a life of luxury for a life devoted to helping others, even those who occasionally need to sleep in Elaine’s own home.
“It feels very much like home here as well. It’s more than a job and while there are some days I put up with a lot of things, but there are plenty more days when someone looks at you and says their life has changed because of the home or the meal we can provide them here,” Elaine says.