Saturday, March 31, 2012

Penny Dinners worth fortune to the hungry

Paddy, a regular at Cork Penny Dinners for the last eight years, has witnessed first-hand the impact the recession has had on the marginalised and vulnerable.

Single, unemployed and struggling to get by on reduced disability and fuel allowances, he was among the almost 90 people who called in for a hot meal at the Penny Dinners’ small soup kitchen on Little Hanover Street, off one of the busiest streets in Cork city centre, yesterday.

"When I first started coming in here, I would be sitting down with about 30 people," he said.

"But now it’s up to 80 or 90 people a day at weekends. I’ve definitely seen a lot more come in here since the recession started.

"And the latest thing I’ve seen is families coming in here — parents with their children.

"If that’s where we are now, I can see no hope for this country for the next 10 to 15 years."

Originally from the west of Ireland, but living in Cork for almost 30 years, he left his dog tied up outside as he tucked into a hot meal of pork chops and potatoes.

He was joined at one of the four long tables by dozens of men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, all with different stories.

"It’s not just the food — it’s the human contact too," said Paddy. "The staff are just wonderful — so welcoming. I’ve made many friends in there."

Betty, who is out of work while recovering from mental health illness, agrees.

She relies on Penny Dinners for a meal several times a week because she just doesn’t have enough money to get by.

"I was embarrassed coming in here for the first time — coming in for a free meal," she said.

"But the staff made me feel so welcome. I feel much better about coming in here now. People just wouldn’t survive without it."

Across the table, a middle-aged man said that without Penny Dinners, he would have had nothing to eat yesterday or on Tuesday.

As dessert is served, volunteer Ray heads out to deliver hot meals to some of the Penny Dinners’ regulars who are housebound.

One of them died at home alone over Christmas. A concerned Penny Dinners volunteer found him — four days after he passed away.

Penny Dinners trustee Florence Harrisson said the service is about so much more than the food.

"Everyone who comes through the door is treated with respect," she said.

"It’s the normality of the place. And for many, it’s often the simple act of just being served — nobody else serves them."

Standing outside, greeting each person by their first name, Catriona said: "The people we deal with could be your aunt, your uncle, your grandparent, your neighbour.

"Everybody in there is somebody that somebody knows.

"For whatever reason they come here, they come here to be fed — and that’s very difficult to appreciate.

"Because no matter how short of money you are, to be short of money for food must be the hardest thing in the world."

The discreet city centre location allows people to access the building from several nearby lanes.

But the building, its cramped kitchen and dining room, are in desperate need of a revamp. The walls are damp and cracked. A tree which was growing through the kitchen wall was removed recently. There is so much work to be done that the service will have to move out.

But Ms Twomey said it is absolutely vital, now more than ever before, that the service continues.

She appealed to the owners of nearby vacant buildings, and to the city authorities, to help them find alternative temporary accommodation for about nine months.

Penny Dinners gets no state support and relies completely on volunteers.

"We depend entirely on the generosity of the people of Cork and beyond," she said.

The service relies on people like Dave Buckley and Bryan Jackson from daily deals website Foffit, who dropped in yesterday after raising €4,200 over Christmas, and on Regina Mundi transition year students Angela Quinlan and Megan Dwyer, who were working in the kitchen yesterday.

Outside in the sunshine, Paddy headed off in to the city, his dog trailing behind.

"The staff are doing their best to get the building upgraded. It would make a huge difference," he said.

* Anyone who can help can contact Florence on 021-4275604, or email pennydinners@hotmail.com

Hot meal

Yesterday’s menu:

* Vegetable soup.

* Pork chops, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, stuffing and gravy.

* Peaches and jelly.

* Tea or coffee. 

Takeaway:

* Packed sandwiches and fruit.

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