As we learn to live with COVID-19 and reconnect with those dear to us, this winter brings an opportunity to share hearty meals with family and friends.
But winter also brings a world of worry for many people unable to put food on their table.
One program in Ballarat is addressing that issue and helping to fill bellies and keep young people in the region connected to their community and loved ones.
The Uniting Vic.Tas-run Meals for Change program supports vulnerable young people to buy discounted meals in local cafes. Through the program, young people pay just $3 towards the cost of a meal in any of the eight partnering cafes, up to the value of $15. Cafes are then reimbursed the balance by Uniting.
The program also allows young people to bring a family member or friend as a guest, who can receive a discount on both meals, giving young people who are going through a tough time a chance to connect with their loved ones.
Meals for Change receives no government funding and relies solely on grants and the generosity of people who donate to the program.
“The program is about more than just providing affordable meals to youth in crisis,” says co-ordinator Jen, who started the initiative in 2016.
“Most importantly, we give young people a sense of community and belonging. They know they are safe and welcome, which is something many of us take for granted.
“Through the program, we can also offer support to pursue education and training opportunities that help people find work and stability.”
Tom credits the program for helping him turn his life around after he found himself homeless six years ago. At just 18, Tom was left devastated by the death of his father. Still reeling from that event, Tom and his mother moved to Ballarat.
“I became depressed and withdrawn,” Tom says. “It was a really tough time.”
With his mental health deteriorating, Tom was unable to find work, which put a strain on his relationship with his mother.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly and I moved out,” he says.
Tom spent the next year living in a Uniting boarding house and was referred to Jen by the housing and crisis team.
“She was setting up the Meals for Change program and asked me to be a secret shopper to see which businesses would be suitable for the program,” Tom says.
“I was happy to help. I knew the program would be helpful to myself and others going through difficult times. When you’re on Centrelink, you only have enough money to scrape by with and pay for the essentials.
“Meals for Change gave me a chance to connect with my community, even if I was down to my last $20 of the week.
“I could eat tasty, healthy and hearty meals and a full stomach at the end of the day is always a good feeling. But more importantly for me, I regained my social life.
“The cafe staff were always so friendly and welcoming, I felt free of judgment and I was able to relax and enjoy myself. It helped me get my mental health back on track.”
Now in his late 20s, Tom no longer accesses the program, which is available to young people aged 15 to 25. He has found long-term housing and is the proud father of a four-year-old son, Ben.
Tom has also started his own gardening business and says he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for the support he received six years ago.
“Jen is my guardian angel at Uniting and, thanks to her support, I was able to get my licence and start working,” he says.
“She was always friendly and welcoming and we would talk about my goals and how I could achieve them. I have no doubt if I hadn’t received that help when I was at my lowest, things would be very different for me today.
“I have a friend who is couch-surfing at the moment and I’ve told her how Uniting helped me change my future. I hope they can help her too.”
More than 300 young people have accessed the program since it started and more than 7100 meals have been served to young people and their loved ones.
“I never realised how significant it is to sit in a cafe and have a meal and feel safe and at ease with the world. That is what I hear time and time again,” Jen says.
“This program isn’t just about filling bellies, it’s about filling the soul.”
To ensure Meals for Change continues to support young people in crisis, donate today to the Uniting Vic.Tas Winter Appeal