“I knew I could help out in the kitchen, I’m a wife and a mum, I like to talk, and I was a newcomer once too.” This is the self-described list of prerequisites SSI volunteer, Ashley Thomas, cites as her motivation for getting involved in Settlement Services International’s (SSI) Community Kitchen.
“I didn’t feel like I had much to offer [otherwise]. I don’t speak another language fluently, don’t have a background in this area; I didn’t even have a good grasp on understanding the needs of the situation or political charge around the refugee and person seeking asylum,” says the American born and now Australian citizen of 17 years.
“When I first moved to Australia, my manager and co-workers were so kind and welcoming to me. I didn’t know anyone here, but I had a job, a business-sponsored via and a one year plan. But I have never forgotten their thoughtfulness. So to see multitudes of individuals and families arriving to our country after horrific circumstances and after such loss and grief, I feel compelled to show that same kindness.”
Dozens of volunteers give up their time each week to help SSI support refugees, humanitarian entrants and people seeking asylum, and their reasons for doing so are varied. But the most important prerequisite you really need, is an interest in connecting with others.
Community Kitchen Team Leader, Ashley has seen how forming these connections have enriched her own life as well.
“It’s opened up a vitalising part of my life.”
“I’ve always been a believer in the idea that everyone has a story, and every story and every person is important. Despite our vast differences, our stories can still connect us with each other. We all have that need for belonging. I didn’t expect to feel like I could ‘belong’ with others from such different backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, etc. But there really is commonality in our humanity. My Wednesdays have become much more about belonging, than just showing kindness.”
During her two years volunteering at the Community Kitchen, Ashley has built up a large bank of fond memories.
“I love being able to sit with the guests and hear their stories. Even if communication between us may be limited, it’s an honour to serve them a meal and help plan an event they find enjoyable, or given them useful information.”
“One of my favourite memories is sitting with two sisters, their mother-in-law and their children, ranging in age from 6 – 16. They were from Mosul, in Iraq, and had been in Australia for about 6 months. They told me their stories, and told me how they’re finding Australia; their challenges, their schooling, and the dreams the kids had.”
And what is Ashley’s advice for people reading this who think they might be interested in volunteering?
“Take the first step and keep coming. There are moments that can be awkward or intimidating or you can really feel out of your comfort zone, but showing kindness and leaning in to an experience like this can be life impacting, not just for the guests, but for yourself.”
“I love the other volunteers; so capable and creative and caring, each with their own story and viewpoint.”
“And the staff, to work with intelligent and compassionate people in this sphere, has been really refreshing and insightful.”
SSI’s Community Engagement program runs events and activities designed to help refugees and people seeking asylum to connect with their peers and others in the community.
Click here to find out more about volunteering with SSI.