With A Little Help from His Friends: An Interview with Outreach Worker Henri Ser.

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We’ve all seen it. We’ve all walked past it. The sight of The Food Van parked on Fitzroy St is as familiar to residents of the area as is the George Hotel or the Number 96 tram. We all have a general idea of what the van does, but that is as much as most of us know about it. Our Editor-in-Chief, Joel Cohen, tries to redress the balance by talking to Henri Ser, Outreach worker with the Father Bob Maguire Foundation and overseer of the Van, who tells us more about this very essential community service.

The Outreach Food Van


Henri, can you tell us what you do with the food van in St Kilda?

We have a food bus service, which I started in 1993 with the late Maureen Johnson. We went to Garden City to start off with, in Port Melbourne, fondly known as Baghdad. We had six hot dogs and a couple of sandwiches. Now it has grown to 120 hotdogs each night, plus 150 toasted sandwiches that we make on the bus.

The monks, who took over from Father Maguire, man the bus that goes out on a Monday. And then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday by the Father Bob Foundation then do Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

I oversee all nights, and am there Thursday and Sunday nights, helping and doing mainly outreach, while the volunteers, who are really great, serve the food. I walk up and down, talk to clients, see if they need referrals, or just someone to listen to them. Maybe they need a blanket, or a lawyer, or whatever. And Sundays is a special night, because we have instigated a trial, which has been running for the last eight months, and has been very successful, where some volunteers bring food which they have made that day – meatloaf, soup, meatballs, spaghetti. We get about 100-120 people on Sunday night. Even when it’s pouring down with rain, they will come and wait in the rain because they are so hungry.

 

So things are going well at the Gatwick location. Is there anything the community can do to help or get involved?

H: We can always use more people to prepare food. If we have enough volunteers, I am very happy to take another bus to another location on the same night. We already do that on Wednesday nights when I go to Park Towers, known as “Hell’s Park”.

On Sundays I do a private bus run for about seven kids aged between three and eleven. I will need volunteers for that in the future. They will need a ‘working with children’ check, and preferably with other qualifications – maybe someone who can teach them how to read and write, or a psychologist, or someone who wants to play sport with them. These are kids who live in housing commission flats, and they have a bad environment around them.

 

What if someone didn’t have a lot of time and just wanted to cook something up on a Sunday and bring it down, would that be alright?

I would welcome that immensely – just give me a call a day or two days in advance on 0404 358 454, and we will even pick it up. Or they can drop it off at the van at 6pm, and we will dish it out.

 

That’s great. On behalf of St Kilda News I would like to thank you for the good work you are doing for people in need. Are there any final messages?

H: I have quite a lot. One is that there are a lot homeless people out there, and they should be respected, and not be snubbed. And if someone does approach you, and asks for a dollar – if you got it, it would be great if you could give it to them, doesn’t matter what they spend it on.

If they say hello to you, say hello back, it’s not going to hurt you, and it will build up their confidence. I notice that when people walk toward the Gatwick, they quickly cross the road. There is no need for that. The people hanging out outside it are really not bad people. Some of are drug or alcohol affected, others have mental problems. You have to respect them. All of them have a hard luck story, most of which are genuine, as I have come to know over the years working with them.

And, finally, we would love it if people could give us clothes – especially socks and blankets  – we can never get enough socks.

 

I heard on the radio about an initiative for backpacks with sleeping bags and mattresses built in. What do you think about those?

They are called swags. Prisoners in Queensland made them and were donated by the NAB. We had them three years ago. We did give them out, but we found that the recipients would try to sell them. They are worth about $70 in the shop. They are a good idea, but not with my clientele, unfortunately.

 

Great, so we will focus on the food and the attitude change for the moment, making sure St Kilda is compassionate toward the people we see everyday.

And, while I have the opportunity, I would like to thank the city of Port Phillip, which is one of the best councils to work with. They have been great in their support. I really admire the work they do for people with disabilities and mental problems.

To find out more about what the Father Bob Maguire Foundation does, log in to fatherbob.org.au. You can also find out how to contribute to the cause by buying the commemorative, limited- edition ‘bobblehead’ figure of Father Maguire from them. It’s an absolute must-have, and is sure to become as iconic as Father Bob himself.

 

 

 

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