By Jodi Bryant
Five years ago, Chris Youens dressed in rags and set off into the night, walking the city in search of people sleeping rough.
It didn't take him long to find some.
"As I was walking past one shop, I heard a guy asking if they had any leftovers. The sad thing was, they did, but they told him to p*** off. I later approached the guy and told him I knew where there was a group giving out free food. I looked the same as him so he trusted me."
Word spread and soon there was quite a gathering. One man would turn up every week and say: 'What's Cooking?!', while another declared: 'This really fed my soul.' And so Soul Food What's Cooking Whangarei was born. Soul Food has had various venues around the city and is now based at the Anglican Hall on the corner of Kamo Rd and Deveron St.
Today it is run by Chris and fiancée Rochelle Hedges, who has also been with Soul Food since its conception, along with a team of volunteers who both cook and help on the nights.
Every Monday and Friday, Rochelle and Chris arrive at 3pm to the venue, which is open for drop-offs of food, clothing, tents, blankets and personal items from 4pm. They also have a drop-off point at Jennian Homes, Selwyn Ave.
Generous Whangarei businesses donate the day's excess fresh goods, or from over-catered functions, although pizza deliveries and the like are not uncommon. As well, kind locals spend the day in their kitchens cooking up a storm.
While the volunteers busily prepare the food in the hall kitchen, Chris also provides transport to and from the venue from a pick-up point in Otaika. He's come to know their regulars over the years and hears many stories.
Not all are homeless, Chris explains. While some are living in cars or on streets, some simply can't afford food once they have paid their rent and bills. Others come along for the companionship.
"We've never turned anybody away before. If they walk through the door, we don't question them. If someone turned up in a tuxedo, we'd just hand them a plate and say: 'Here you go – have a feed.'"
At 7pm, the doors open and people drift in where, chatting quietly, they take up seats on the benches lining the hall. Once the food is laid, at 7.30pm, they queue patiently while Rochelle thanks everyone and says grace. Any night can vary from between 40 and 60 people. However, one night there was 85.
Polystyrene containers are provided but some bring their own bowls. They serve to young and old, families with young children, some well-dressed, some not-so. All are polite and very grateful.
There's soup, sausages, scalloped potatoes, meat loaf, lasagne, hangi and the dessert, equally impressive.
With full bellies and takeaway sandwiches and fruit, the people say their thanks and drift into the night.
Nothing gets wasted – what leftovers can be frozen are and the rest is offered to the volunteers.
Rochelle and Chris usually close up at 9.30pm, although some nights it's as late as 10.45pm. But even then, they still need to unload the trailer at home and freeze the leftovers for food parcels.
Rochelle and Chris are not opulent themselves and they continue to do this, simply because of the need. Rochelle explains that, as a teen, her family, through no fault of their own, once spent a short period living in their car.
"I just really wanted to help others and give the homeless something warm to eat and a friendly face to talk to."
The couple both agree they do it mostly for the joy and happiness it brings. They have also created many friendships along the way. In fact, their own love blossomed over Soul Food, culminating in an engagement for a wedding planned for next year.
While Chris says he loves how beautiful and caring his fiancé is, Rochelle says it's Chris' support, compassion and drive which continually impress her.
The couple, who have three children between them say, with Soul Food taking up around 90 per cent of their time, on top of Rochelle's job as a caregiver, the wedding plans are coming along slowly.
"We have a pastor and I have my dress and that's where we are up to so far. As we have learned, good things take time."
The scene at home is chaos with food boxes and bags of donated items taking over the lounge.
"Most nights, our family time is sitting talking while we sort. It's non-stop but we wouldn't change it for the world."