Notes From A Soup Kitchen

Volunteer Jessica Leow pens her thoughts on helping feed Willing Hearts’ 6,500 beneficiaries as volunteerism and donations drop and the Covid-19 pandemic rages on

Notes From A Soup Kitchen
The writer, Jessica Leow, stir-frying a vegetable staple at Willing Heart's Jalan Ubi premises.Jessica Leow

It is 5am. I’m listening to Covid-19 updates on BBC, driving on an empty BKE.

I am headed for Willing Hearts, a soup kitchen where I’ve been helping out since 2013. Located at Jalan Ubi, it provides those in need — including the elderly, the handicapped, low-income families and migrant workers — with a daily packed lunch.

It takes a small army of volunteers alongside a handful of staff to cook, prepare and pack for some 6,500 beneficiaries daily, 365 days a year.

When I arrive, the kitchen is already a hive of activity — cauldrons of vegetables bubble away, and giant vats of chicken are flash-fried as bucketloads of piping hot rice are cooked.

I join the packers in the adjacent room, in a mellifluous symphony of scoops. Everyone works tirelessly, conveyor belt-style to pack the fragrant rice and freshly cooked ingredients into styrofoam boxes.

Other volunteers bag the boxes, then carry them to vans and cars that deliver the meals to some 40 locations island-wide.

Willing Hearts founder Tony Tay works on the packing line. In 2003, he and his wife Mary said a simple “yes” to help collect unsold bread and buns from a bakery to the Canossian Convent, and to distribute the excess after. Tony and Mary later said “yes” to providing an elderly gentleman a packed meal – the starting point of their one hot meal revolution.
(Image: Vivien Chan)

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected life globally, and Willing Hearts is no exception.

I now have to have my temperature taken, provide my details for contact tracing, and utilise a walk-through disinfectant gate before entering the kitchen.

In addition to the requisite hairnet and gloves, I have to keep my mask on throughout my session.

Two changes are most palpable: First, to ensure social distancing, food preparation has to be done over a larger area, which means more cleaning. Food packing has also been moved from the kitchen to the adjacent hall, which translates to more time required to ferry the food from the kitchen.

Ongoing circuit breaker measures have made it imperative for volunteers to minimise our time in public, and also that of the beneficiaries, most of whom collect their lunch packs at void decks. (The rest have their meals delivered to their units.)

This has led to the second, amazing change: Instead of the new measures slowing things down, everything starts and finishes much earlier now.

There is a relentless sense of mission to get the day’s delivery completed as quickly as possible. In the early days, because of a drop in volunteers, we would sometimes still be cooking at 10am. Now, packing is completed sometimes as early as 8am!

While volunteerism has reportedly dropped, others have stepped up to ensure that 6,500 packed lunches are prepared and distributed to vulnerable communities daily.
(Image: Jessica Leow)

Since Covid-19 struck our shores, the number of regular volunteers has halved on some days.

“Many volunteers are worried and frightened about Covid-19, but they are ready to serve. All of us are sacrificing our lives; we honestly don’t know if we will be affected by the virus, but we still carry on. We must continue to help our brothers, no matter how hard,” Willing Hearts founder Tony Tay says to me. “Blood, rain, sickness or in health. We can’t say ‘sorry, let them die’.”

One volunteer who has stepped up is ex-weekender Vivien Chan, who has since January come in daily at 4:45am. “It’s a lifestyle change but I’ve found supernatural strength and happiness,” she says. “Be a willing heart, then your hands and feet will move to care and serve.”

One incident, in particular, put into sharper focus why I volunteer at Willing Hearts.

A social worker friend had alerted me about a part-time fast food crew whose husband is on dialysis. She lost her job when the chain stopped operations, and she was also turned down for financial aid. I alerted Tony the next morning — Willing Hearts sent her food that very same day.

It hit home: As one whose family had in the past worried about where our next meal would come from, this Covid-created incident made volunteering more personal than ever.

If we can help just one person to not worry about their next meal, perhaps we can lessen life’s burden for them somewhat.

And as Covid-19 has shown, life can be one heck of a heavy burden.

Food trays of various sizes are cleaned and disinfected everyday.
(Image: Jessica Leow)

Tony shares that there are three groups of volunteers at Willing Hearts: “The first is just bored and want to get out of the house. The second comes with heavy baggage, and often unload their problems. The third group comes with a real desire to help others. These volunteers are really here to serve.”

“The key is to understand and see how we can help the first two groups. And if they find happiness here through volunteering, and they bring it back home, that’s the ideal. We can change the first two groups into the third.”

As I pack my apron for the next morning, I reflect on his words. Whatever challenges Covid-19 presents, we can do something for those who need help.

I hope to evolve into the third — one scoop at a time.

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