Sarah serves the community through Youth Off The Streets’ food van

30 years ago, Father Riley's food van started serving food to people experiencing homelessness. It still runs today, with Sarah at the helm of its operations.
Sarah in front of Youth Off The Streets' food van

The first Youth Off The Streets service to begin operating was a food van that served meals to homeless young people in Kings Cross.

For nearly 30 years, we’ve been preparing and serving hot meals and drinks to both adults and young people in Green Park, Darlinghurst, almost every night of the year.

The Food Van relies on a dedicated team of volunteers for it to run each evening. There is a real sense of community, fulfilment and perspective that comes with volunteering on the Food Van.

Sarah Stavrou has worked at Youth Off The Streets as the Food Van coordinator for almost 13 years, ensuring that it goes out 363 evenings of the year.

She organises meals, prepares the volunteer roster and collects donations from our valued partners.

Sarah is the backbone of this service and without her, the food van would not run as smoothly and efficiently as it does.

What made you want to join Youth Off The Streets?

Before Youth Off The Streets, I  had always worked in the corporate world.

I realised I didn’t want to spend my working life focused on businesses that are just about revenue making.

I wanted to do something that would make even just the smallest difference to people’s lives and that’s why I begun to look for employment in the non-profit sector.

What does your role as coordinator involve?

The Food Van is operated by over 100 volunteers per month, so initially it is liaising with them about their role so they know what to expect.

I also manage the volunteer roster, making adjustments where necessary to ensure the van goes out every night of the month. Volunteers can’t always commit at short notice so it is often a fair amount of swapping around and asking for favours!

Apart from that, I prepare the weekly menu as the volunteers come and cook a hot meal at Don Bosco Home prior to taking it out to feed our patrons.

I do this on quite a tight budget so that can sometimes be challenging. I also make sure the van is well stocked with the necessary items (coffee, tea and milo are a must!) and especially now with the pandemic, make sure there is regular daily cleaning to be in line with NSW Health regulations.

I liaise with some of our donors to collect food, blanket and clothing donations for the van.

What are some things people might not know about the Food Van service?

I’m really proud to work for a program that has been around since the beginning – almost 30 years.

Father Riley founded the charity in 1991 and the Food Van was our flagship service that still operates to this day – every night of the year except New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras.

While we are a service for young people, we never turn anyone away. The meals that we serve each night are often the only meal homeless people – young or old – will have all day.

And the patrons who visit us often like to have a chat with the volunteers – being homeless is a very lonely and alienating experience and sometimes our volunteers are the only people our patrons might have a proper conversation with for that entire day or maybe even longer.

What is your experience interacting with the young people at Don Bosco Home?

My interactions with the young people who live at our refuge are quite minimal. I always follow their lead on whether they want to talk or interact, which is important as when they come to the house they are mostly coming from very difficult circumstances.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing young people who I won’t ever forget, especially for their strength and resilience.

How heavily do you rely on volunteers to support the Food Van service?

The food van service relies almost completely on volunteers. Without their support, it would not operate as successfully as it does.

The nature of volunteer work means that we have quite a high turnover of people. When someone’s life gets busy, volunteer commitments often are the first to get cancelled.

However, I am constantly amazed at how many of our volunteers never miss a shift and continue to come to the van for many years to help out.

What other ways can you advise people to help with the Food Van other than volunteering, if they are interested? 

As we are really time and budget restricted with the food we can serve, we are always appreciative of any meal or food donations that people bring.

Often groups will get together to cook a few meals each and then deliver to us in bulk which is a great help. Also, anything sweet like homemade cakes and biscuits are great as it shows our patrons that people have cared enough to spend time cooking for them.

As for winter, patrons are often looking for blankets, jumpers and jackets to keep them warm while living on the street, so getting those donations are a big help too.

What are some important things someone working in your field should keep in mind?

I think we all have to remember that because our clients are homeless or sleeping rough doesn’t mean that they should have to accept anything less than what we ourselves would eat.

They need nutrition too. Fruit, vegetables and a variety of fresh food is always received really well.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the food van is a great example of what happens when a lot of people collectively get together and give a few hours of their time each month, providing a regular and reliable service to those in need.

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