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The faith-based charities offering hope and support to communities

Simple things like warm meals and compassion can make a big impact.

Every Friday evening near Victoria Market, the volunteers of Grace Connection are met by a winding line of people heading around the block. They are lining up for help. Perhaps just a meal served to them on the street by volunteers or their clothes cleaned in the mobile washing service of Orange Sky.

Many organisations open their hearts to those doing it tough around Victoria. The Tibetan Buddhist Society, Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund, Sikh Volunteers Australia and Hare Karishna Food for Life are just a few of over five thousand faith-based charities that support those in need.

In the serving line are long-time volunteers Esau and Nancy Westerlund. They’re at Grace Connection under the Samoan Adventist Churches, which was created through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) — the official humanitarian agency of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They have been volunteering for 40 years.

Esau Westerlund says most of the programs within the organisation are “run by volunteers” and although the organisations fall under the church, it is not funded by them. It’s a real community initiative.

“It’s all funded by the volunteers, people in it, within the church, they volunteer to donate if they want to,” he tells upstart.

The Hope Café, located in Fawkner across from St Marks Catholic church, is another community-funded group born out of the faith of volunteers and their passion to help others.

Krystene Care has volunteered at the Hope Café since it opened 13 years ago. Care saw a need to help the local community, to provide food and a safe place for people.

“A lot of people come to us who are isolated,” she tells upstart. “They don’t have any family or friends, and coming each Thursday is the one time that they interact with others and a sense of community is what we aim for.”

These organisations are open to serving all within the community regardless of their religious background. Nancy Westerlund believes that the church’s values help build compassion and a strong community mindset. Without them she believes people might think “Why should I worry? It’s not my problem”.

Esau Westerlund says it’s their compassion for all types of individuals and passion for helping those in the community which draw people to their organisation.

“If you try to talk to them or push them or say that you must come to church and people just don’t want to come back anymore, and we believe that’s not the way we win people’s attention,” he says. “It’s more, you got to show them your compassion through your action and your work that you do for them.”

Care says that the Hope Café, like Grace Connection, is a community initiative which prides itself on its compassion for people regardless of the religion it was built on.

“It’s very much about someone belonging and someone checking on them each week and asking how they’re going and knowing their story,” she says. “So, I think that’s what brings people back rather than their faith.”

However, volunteering is hard work and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. According to Nancy Westerlund their organisation, Grace Connection, had many people from the church volunteer at first, however by the second week there was only five of them left.

“You know, it’s not until you really have a taste of it and you have to have the passion for the people, you have to have patience, you have to have understanding,” she says.

When one of the people they serve acts out, Esau Westerlund leans on his agency’s training on how to cope when dealing with an abundance of people. He just brushes the behaviour off and keeps going, remembering it’s important to have an open mind around the way the people who come for help live and remove any judgment.

“If I was myself in my younger days, I would just turn around and punch someone in the face,” he says.

While it’s mentally and physically hard work, Nancy Westerlund believes as long as those who choose to volunteer have love and passion for people it is possible to create real change that benefits the whole community.

“I think for me the most important word here is love,” she says. “If you have love in your heart, you can conquer anything.”


Article: Ella Zammit is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @EllaJZammit

Photo: Supplied by Krystene Care and is used with permission.

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