First things first – there is no ‘Pearl’ at Pambula’s community kitchen, located in the Masonic Lodge every Wednesday.
“We named it Pearl’s Place because I liked the idea of a little treasure inside a rough exterior,” says director Louise Maud, “we’re all a little bit like that, aren’t we?”
Moving into its fourth year, Pearl’s Place mimics a model seen in Bega with Ricki’s Place and in many other communities – a free weekly community meal, cooked by a chef, with a menu and servers just like a restaurant.
“We focus on dignity and non-judgemental service,” says Maud in between greeting regulars.
Volunteers such as Maud clearly go out of their way to help their customers.
Today, regular guest Cathryn Watson has arranged for one of the volunteers to give her a lift from her flat in Merimbula.
Five years into a cancer diagnosis which limits her movement, Watson has often caught the RSL bus provided for transport to Pearl’s Place but when she found she could no longer manage the bus steps, everyone pitched in to make sure she could still come, collecting her in a car instead.
“I try to come when I can,” Watson says over spinach quiche and salad. “It’s my social outing, I can’t get out much so it’s this and church.”
The weekly meal has expanded to include other activities over the lunchtime slot – two volunteers now teach a casual Tai Chi class at the front of the room while the approximately forty guests get settled with a hot drink.
Some do the class seated, others join in briefly and a few stay the distance.
“It’s beneficial no matter how much you do,” says Abi Schmidt, the Tai Chi volunteer leader. “It’s very calming, good for circulation and lymph drainage.”
There was some question about whether a service like Pearl’s Place was needed in the Merimbula/Pambula area, but community kitchens answer bigger needs than the need for free food, says Maud.
“Sometimes we all have anxiety about things. We’ve had people so anxious they can’t come in the first week and eventually they’ve come out of their shells and become real chatterboxes! We’ve had a mental health worker say that eating here is more effective than counselling in some cases – just to be part of a community.”As my friendly server introduces herself [“Shirley”] and gets me settled at a table of six, bringing water and bread, I have a moment of social anxiety. Looking around the room and our table, I see people with serious disabilities, obvious mental illness, and just plain hard luck.
In the lull before food is served, the noise level in the room rises [“I love the din,” confesses Shirley] and a woman at our table leans across and asks Watson where she got her beautiful necklace.
Watson pulls the necklace out of her shirt with a smile: “It’s a medical alert button,” she says and everyone cracks up.
The awkward silence is broken and we chat about the food and Watson’s love of writing science fiction. Everyone has food envy when the black cherry jelly arrives for dessert and chef Miller comes to our table to describe how he juices fresh cherries and sets it with leaf gelatine.
Box jelly this is not.
The group began by sourcing all its food from OzHarvest and still focus’ on using food that needs to be used, such as excess local produce. But Pearl’s Place is now financially sustainable, using donations to pay rent, improve the kitchen and purchase food.
Many people drop a few coins in a jar on their way out – guests at Pearl’s Place pay what they can.
If it’s time for you to direct some lunch money towards a good cause and eat with a wide cross-section of our community, everybody is welcome at Pearl’s Place at Pambula on Wednesdays from 11:30-1 pm.