Artwork by: Nikita Zinoviev, age 16
Written by: Vincent Chang

The dawn had barely broken.

If I squinted hard enough, I might have been able to catch a glimpse of the spire of Christ-Church jutting out at the edge of the sky, appearing even sharper in the winter rain. The air was cold, my stomach rumbled, and I dreamt of bed and breakfast at home. Then the church bells struck seven in the distance, and I heard the jingle of lock and key behind me. I picked up my bags and crossed the threshold of the dreary, brooding gloom into the warm, glowing corridors of the Uniting Prahran Relief Centre.

The initiative was organized by my school’s Values in Action Committee, but volunteers were difficult to find. Indeed, it seemed like few students wanted to sacrifice their own morning breakfasts for philanthropic work in the unforgiving cold. Yet the winter season can be particularly harsh for those who are homeless or struggling to make ends meet. As the temperatures drop and the Melbourne days become shorter, the challenges of finding warm shelter and a hot meal become even more daunting. I have served at Uniting Prahran since the COVID pandemic, when the region was hit the hardest by economic recession and many individuals at the precipice were forced to move their lives onto the streets. Sometimes the thermostat plummets to zero and I sit at my desk, mildly annoyed at the frigidity of the air outside. What I failed to fathom then was how the nights of many less fortunate would be thrown to the mercy of the elements without even a warm meal to look forward to.

My first time at the Winter Breakfast struck a chord deep within my mind. I was immediately delegated to serve meals to the guests. With no experience in this task, I did not know what to anticipate, and rehearsed again and again what I would say. But as our first guests arrived, I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion and humanity that overrode any anxiety toward the unknown. Watching the people whom I served clutch their steaming bowls of gruel, I grew to realize just how important and meaningful this initiative really was.

We directly engaged with the people we served: holding conversations, telling jokes, and sharing our stories. The conversations and interactions I had with the guests at the morning breakfast were eye-opening. Each person had a unique story and journey, and taking the time to listen and understand their perspectives was both humbling and enlightening. I met families struggling to make ends meet, the recently hospitalized facing difficult transitions, and elderly people living on fixed incomes.

It's easy to make assumptions about homelessness or poverty, but this experience has shown me that there is no one-size-fits-all narrative. People end up in difficult circumstances for a variety of reasons, and showing respect and understanding nuance can make a world of difference in their lives.

One man whom I served once worked as part of a party-planning business, which flourished before the pandemic. But when COVID hit and this business collapsed, he was not able to make a recovery. No longer able to pay the rent and faced with mounting debt, he was evicted to live in his car. Another woman was working paycheck-to-paycheck as she sought treatment for a severe illness, and was similarly rendered helpless by a sudden increase in rent. She was a frequent guest there. The breakfast hall was lively, and sometimes strangers sat together to share a conversation after their meals. Those who knew each other already exchanged jokes and updates on their situations. And although times were still difficult, everybody held a burning hope for the future that is difficult to describe.

The tasks I've undertaken at the morning breakfast have varied, from food preparation and serving to cleaning up. These seemingly mundane tasks take on a new significance when you realize the impact they have on someone's day. While I had ignored them before, now I immediately recognized the wholesome smell of freshly baked potatoes, or the sounds of bacon crackling in the kitchen. I was granted a new perspective toward these ordinary things — I was reliving my life in a way that I had never anticipated before.

I bonded with the team of dedicated volunteers, who were people from all backgrounds and walks of life, united by a common purpose — to alleviate hunger and provide warmth in one of the most troubled suburbs of this city. This sense of collective responsibility transcends age and experience, and instills a profound sense of hope into all involved.

Soon I was involved in awareness campaigns within the school, fundraising for Uniting Prahran in my homegroup and encouraging my mates to give it a shot. Because now I had seen the system of philanthropy that connected individuals like me to the larger initiative: this was the same system that linked small restaurants and grocers to kitchens like the ones I am part of, or schools to the volunteering opportunities offered in this community. At the same time, I found myself reflecting on many of the things I take for granted — from that bowl of hot noodle soup that mom makes in the morning, to my comfy bed at night. A hot brekkie isn’t something I attributed much significance to, but I also couldn’t perceive just how much it affected me, and how lucky I was. With more volunteering experience, I also found myself listening more and more, rather than doing most of the talking in my daily conversations. I saw how vulnerability could be counteracted through conversation and sharing stories, some of which are deeply personal. Simply “being there” for someone during a difficult time can be the greatest thing ever, and listening is the first step.

I continue to wait at the crossroads on winter mornings, counting cars and waiting for the breakfast to open. I am reminded that meaningful initiatives like these are not just about giving; they are about receiving the immeasurable gifts of empathy, understanding, and the knowledge that we can bring hope through little things like bacon and eggs.

Vincent Chang was a Year 10 student from Australia when he wrote this article. When he isn’t preparing for a debate or rehearsing at choir, you can find him reading and writing about literature and the arts, history and linguistics, theater and poetry. He is especially interested in narrative: because a story isn’t about “what happens,” but about how what happens transforms the characters.

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