Once a year, Volunteer Whanganui reaches out to selected members of the community and says "I Dare You".
The dare is to spend at least a couple of hours learning what it's like to volunteer at one of many places in Whanganui. This year, I chose to help out at the Castlecliff Friendship Meals.
Every Wednesday, a team of dedicated volunteers get to work preparing food in the kitchen of St Luke's Church hall in Castlecliff. I arrived just before 10am, by which time work was well underway.
Rob, Zac and David were in the kitchen, Robert was at a table preparing vegetables, Paul was setting up tables, Aaron was moving from one job to the next and Pam was making desserts. Wally turned up later to act as welcomer.
Rob is head chef, and he has the qualifications and decades of experience to prove it. He wears his chef's whites. Zac is second chef and he's volunteering while recovering from a serious motor accident. It's his last day before returning to New Plymouth. Everyone was busy preparing a hot midday meal for an as yet undisclosed number of diners. They plan for anything up to 50 people but generally it's somewhere in the 30s.
Today's menu is country casserole, mashed potatoes and vegetables, followed by banana split for dessert.
The kitchen is well equipped with a large fridge, two freezers (one upright, one chest), a dishwasher / steriliser, sinks, plenty of bench space and lots of storage. All surfaces are kept spotless.
The tables are long trestles, covered with a cloth, set with cutlery and carafes of water and juice. Today's juice is plum: Aaron's in charge of that. There are even small splashes of colour in the form of artificial flowers — for that homely touch.
Not all diners come because there's good food and it's cheap — $4 for two courses is the usual price — many are there for the company, says David. "For some people it's community, and it's important they have that social contact. For some it's financial: 'jobseeker' doesn't go very far."
David is the organiser, the keeper of the books — everything is recorded meticulously — and he was the one who took me through the food safety documentation and training before I could lend a hand in the kitchen. Hand washing is a timed procedure. David arrives at the hall at 8.30am every Wednesday morning.
A food safety plan is paramount.
Castlecliff Friendship Meals has to be self-sustaining. All food is purchased: very little, if any, is donated, although some might come from the City Mission if they have any available.
Work pauses for a few minutes while everyone gathers for morning tea and a chat.
"I started cooking in 1958 and I'm still going," says Rob. That was at the Grand Hotel in Rotorua.
"I came to Whanganui a week before Christmas in 1974 and I've been here ever since."
Back to work and things get busy as the team prepares food. Zac is mashing the potatoes: garlic scents the kitchen.
Pam fills plates with sweet things while peeled bananas float in a citric acid solution to keep them fresh. Wafer biscuits and ice cream complete the dish.
People start arriving early. They wait patiently for the doors to open then file quietly to their seats. Many are obviously regulars. Their seats aren't named but they might as well be. Two meals have been set aside for vegetarians. There are 36 diners seated, although two latecomers arrive.
By the time most diners have arrived, it's time to serve. Grace is said while meals are prepared. Rob and Zac make sure helpings are plentiful, plating up with care and generosity. Plates are put on to tea trolleys, wheeled out into the hall and delivered to tables. Water and juice jugs are topped up and service stops when all plates have been delivered. A few minutes later, some come to the servery for seconds.
We load desserts on to the empty trolleys and deliver the second course.
Before long 38 diners have been fed and volunteers clean up. Extra meals have been prepared for staff and volunteers next door at Luke's Locker charity shop.
This happens every Wednesday, but more often than not the meals are more complicated and take more time. Other churches deal with the other days of the week, all done by volunteers — giving their time and skills selflessly. They could do with some help.