Feeding the souls
Shelley Bishop turns the big white van into the coincidentally named Bishops Lane, pushes the play button in the cab, and the catchy music of It's a Small World drifts out in the early evening air.
Like magic, the children appear. Out of the houses, down the footpath, in this small cul-de-sac in Hamilton's Nawton suburb. By the time Bishop pulls up at the kerb, a cluster of children waits, more arriving on the trot. They know the drill. They are all smiles and there are a few mums and dads along with them.
Sandwiches, bananas, Milo and cordial are swiftly dispensed. There are eager hands reaching for the treats, placing their "orders". Some want egg sandwiches, others go for ham or Vegemite. Bishop works hard to keep up with the sammie demand in the first flurry.
At the back of the van, Brian Williams and Brother Joe McCarthy fill takeaway cups with Milo and with cordial. Williams shakes up the big containers of ice-cold milk, mixes in the Milo. "We call it a cuppacino, " he says. The children giggle; some of them are soon wearing a milky moustache as they down their drinks.
"It's awesome, " says Matisha East, whose son Gali Hindmarsh, 2, is munching on an egg sandwich.
"The kids love it, they talk about it, they get together to have kai. All the kids have a play, it's like a little routine."
She's got plenty of food for her son at home, but the sammies are an extra treat, a chance for them to enjoy some company in the street as well. "They're doing a good job."
This is St Vincent de Paul in action, the Catholic helping agency that among other things runs the Good Neighbour Projects in Hamilton. Under this umbrella, St Vinnie's has the Loaves & Fishes programme, which takes school lunches to children in 24 Hamilton schools, and the Full Fill night food drop, whereby the sturdy white van and volunteers distribute sandwiches, fruit and drinks to selected suburban locations five nights a week.
The St Vinnies night food van is probably not widely known outside the neighbourhoods it visits, although the Good Neighbour Projects won the Volunteering Waikato Team Excellence Award last year for its efforts.
But the white van came to public attention out of adversity earlier this month when it was siphoned of fuel, jeopardising the night run. Two large freezers of food at St Vinnies were also cleaned out. The widespread comment around town was: How can you steal from a charity? How low can you go?
St Vincent de Paul Hamilton manager Mike Rolton says the public response and generosity after the burglary was overwhelming: donations of food, vouchers and money flooded in. Things were quickly back to normal and the freezers and van are well-stocked again. The culprit was caught, too, dobbed in by some of the men whom St Vinnies helps. "They [the men] have their own set of rules, " Rolton says. "You don't break the rules."
The St Vinnies night food runs were mentioned in Waikato Times stories about the burglary. So a little later, on this Friday night, we are along for the ride to see how it all works.
The runs take in lower-income areas where there is a perceived need for the service, covering various locations in Melville, Enderley, Fairfield, Nawton, Frankton and Rhode St. The operation is simple, aiming for consistency by doing the same places on the same nights, offering the same food and drinks.
Mike Rolton says the social interaction generated by the van is as important - if not more so - than the food. He keeps hearing that in some streets, neighbours have started talking to each other because of the food runs, enjoying the cheerful business of clustering at the van with the children. It's one night, though, he adds, when parents don't have to prepare a meal. If they need to, they can count on the food van to provide, and it may help stretch the budget.
The van crew tonight comprises Brian Williams, the acting Good Neighbour Projects co-ordinator, and volunteers Shelley Bishop, a schoolteacher, and Marist Brother Joe McCarthy from Ngaruawahia, a semi-retired schoolteacher. They load 260 sandwiches, a box of bananas and the drinks at the St Vinnies Centre in Frankton and hit the road at 5.30pm.
This is only the second run for Bishop and Brother Joe. They acquit themselves calmly, good-naturedly, as they're almost swamped by about 30 children at the first stop on Bishops Lane.
One man comes back twice for a big pile of sandwiches, and takes them to his home across the road. Like Matisha East, he praises the service. A little girl asks for an extra banana "for Mum". Ranui Purnell, 11, reckons it is a cool thing in his street. Brendon Maniapoto, 9, says he would like to have his name in the newspaper and almost everyone is clamouring for a Milo cuppacino.
The van is in Bishops Lane for about 20 minutes. The feeding flurry tapers off, the rubbish bin with empty polystyrene cups is returned from the footpath to the van. The children wave. Bishop drives to the next stop, Reuben Pl.
She hits the music as she noses into the street. Kids come running from all directions, watched by grown-ups from the front yards. Some children say this is their dinner tonight. Others have already eaten and this is their top-up treat.
"It stretches the budget, " says one mother as she picks up a handful of sandwiches.
An older girl named Oceaan brings a handful of coins, a donation from her auntie. It is the only money that changes hands tonight. Mathew Wilson's home is adjacent to where the van parks in Reuben Pl. He has five boys, some of them enjoying the sammies and drinks. Among them is Te Ohonga, 6, and a little mate who are happily tucking in.
Like other parents, Wilson praises the routine. "It's out there for all the kids. It's the social part as well as the food - you can tell they love this."
About 30 children are in the Reuben Pl lineup, a mix of cheek, patience, curiosity. Lots more would like their names in the newspaper, among them Toka, Ariel, Legacy and Elite.
Some are quick with their pleases and thank yous, others take the food without comment. The manners thing is discussed in the van on the way to the last stop, Aileen Pl.
Brother Joe sums up: "We're not here to judge, " he says. "It's not our job to refuse them over a technicality."
The crowd at Aileen Pl is smaller, bolstered by one or two who have biked or run over from Reuben Pl for a second helping.
Bishop has been worried about how the sandwiches supply will hold, but she's reassured. There will be plenty to go around, and even leftovers to be dropped off at the Christian Night Shelter.
Brother Joe is nearly out of cordial, and they are down to the last bananas. One girl on Aileen Pl scores a few extras for the rest of the family and two sisters take a big pile of sandwiches home to mum, who is expecting her seventh baby. Williams quietly makes sure this happens. The volunteers get to know some of the families and their needs.
Williams is unflappable and friendly throughout, jokes with the children, and finally says farewell. The van turns back to town to the night shelter with the leftover sandwiches, then heads to base in Frankton. Bishop and Brother Joe are smiling. They have done their second stint. They will be back for more.
The team goes over the numbers. They have seen more than 60 children and some adults. It's all been just as Mike Rolton has modestly described - one of the many things they are doing at St Vinnies.
Rolton shares more stories out the back of the two St Vincent de Paul charity shops in Frankton. His "office" was formerly a storage space, now cleared for desks and business. But some of the detritus remains. There are a couple of dusty fine-china teacups and saucers parked to one side of Rolton's desk, maybe destined for the shop, a big jar of tomato chutney nearby, boxes of children's games, cushions and other stuff.
Rolton oversees it all, fields phone calls, clients, volunteers, answers a few questions about himself, explains what he's doing here.
It is a big change from his previous life. Rolton is in his 50s, he is a Catholic, he had two Maori grandmothers, two English grandfathers. He was born in Thames, and has worked mainly in corporate business. He worked for Fletchers back in the day, did tertiary studies at the same time, and more recently he was a commodity trader working out of Southeast Asia.
He got sick of it, came home to New Zealand in 2006 and decided to reinvent himself as a sports coach.
"I didn't plan on doing too much work, " he says, "but I got a bit bored."
About three years ago, he saw "the smallest ad in the history of situations vacant" for the part-time job of manager of Hamilton's two St Vincent de Paul shops.
Rolton kept picking the advertisement up, putting it down. He went for it, downgraded his CV in his effort to get the job, and thought he would still have time to do sports coaching as well.
He grins at that mistake. The job grew, and as well as being St Vincent de Paul shop and centre manager, he is the organisation's retail development manager for 54 shops nationwide.
Rolton says when he started, he saw a sleeping giant not working to its potential, with an ageing volunteer population where nothing had changed for 20 or 30 years.
He tells a story about visiting a St Vincent de Paul shop down country where the clothing racks were practically empty. He asked what was going on. He was told there were plenty of clothes out the back, but it was "June's job" to replenish the shop, and June only worked on Tuesdays.
"We have to change, or we will die, " Rolton says bluntly. In Hamilton he's revamped the operation, raised its profile in the city, brought in new faces, more flexible rosters, got rid of bad wood, made other changes, and will assist other stores throughout the country.
He says that since he started, he seems to have been telling the retail people how badly they have been performing.
It looks to have gone down OK. St Vincent de Paul national executive officer Anne-Marie McCarten says Rolton is worth his weight in gold. "What he's done so far is lift everyone's spirits, show it can be done. We realise his expertise. He is a fantastic businessman."
McCarten says the organisation offers people a hand-up, not hand-out, and is proud of the breadth of support on offer. The food vans, for example, run successfully in Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua, with more on the way. As well as providing meals, they become a point of contact with people in need, an opportunity for the society to address other issues.
She mentions a woman who came to a night van with her children. She was struggling to adequately feed and clothe them. St Vincent de Paul provided her with a fridge and washing machine. She had had neither of these appliances since her husband had left some years earlier.
Rolton loves how such things happen, and he utterly values Hamilton's 90 St Vincent de Paul volunteers who work in the shops and the centre, pack lunches, drive the van. "Without them it doesn't work."
He is relishing the opportunity to make a difference. "It's the best job satisfaction I've ever had; I'm giving back to the country that gave me heaps."
Rolton had been living in Indonesia before he returned to New Zealand. He saw a lot of poverty there. Back home, he observed people struggling in ways that had not been happening when he went away.
Rolton says the need for St Vincent de Paul services has increased markedly in the past 18 months, and it does not take much to trip people up. A husband and wife might be both working, but maybe the husband's overtime is cut and they cannot make it on his 40 hours and her part-time job. These families typically become short-term clients. They are often embarrassed to ask for help.
As well as the more visible work in Hamilton of the shops, food runs, and centre meals on Fridays, St Vincent de Paul works with Catholic Family Support Services and Family Start. People can be referred for budget advice, for counselling and other assistance. It also works with other city agencies, and among other things furnishes about four or five houses a week for families who have been uprooted through domestic violence, hardship or mental illness.
Rolton says volunteers delivered furniture to a family a while back and children aged 9 or 10 said it was the first time they had had beds of their own - they'd been sharing mattresses on the floor, topping and tailing.
"The children clapped when they put the beds in. My guys were upset by it."
On the Friday night food run at Nawton, the children did not exactly clap, but you could see the van was a welcome visitor to their neighbourhood