“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.”
8 a.m. on a Monday morning. A merciless downpour was raging outside. Rain lashed against the fence of the small vegetable garden and howled over the concrete walls forming the walkway that led to the food preparation area. It was a small grey courtyard scattered with long tables and plastic stools. The former were almost perpetually covered in newspapers and laden with massive plastic baskets of vegetables. Today it was celery. The previous days had seen onions, chye sim and milk cabbage cross the floor. The few brave souls who had weathered the storm to turn up for duty set to work – hauling out bundles of leaves, chopping up stems, arranging the empty baskets – with wordless determination.
I had been assigned to wash several kilograms of celery that day. I hoisted each basket out onto the edge of the massive sink that sat the edge of the room. They had sharp edges, and occassionally my fingertips would prickle as I cut myself yet again. Massive bundles of celery tumbled out and I plunged my hands between them, trying as much as I could to scrub away the slime that clung to each stem. Just earlier this morning, they had come festering in plastic bags, many with wilting leaves or stems that had liquefied into masses of orange mush. Under the diligent hands of volunteers, they had been trimmed and cut to edible standards. I was another cog in this menial, yet vital, process to turn leftovers into food that could possibly support an entire housing estate.
Standing next to me was Mr Tay. He was one of the mainstays in the team of tireless volunteers manning the operation – repeating instructions on how to slice the celery stems properly, turning around to delegate individuals to the delivery department, and going back to carry more baskets of celery to the giant blue walk-in freezer. That morning, he had pointed the letters mounted on the wall out to me. He told me how it all began.
“Soup is for cold countries where they also serve out potatoes and bread. It’s an American term. Tony – the short guy? You’ve seen him? – was the one who started this with a group of volunteers with his church. They started by giving out bread, then they moved on to canned food before it became this. We’ve moved locations 5 already.”
Five years ago, I had visited Willing Hearts’ old premises at Geylang (thankfully, there are pockets of the area that weren’t converted into a red-light district). It had definitely been smaller, without its own vegetable garden and the preparation area being consigned to an offshoot of the kitchen. But that hadn’t helped me learn how much the organisation had come, and how much it had to go.
“This kitchen is always busy. We are open 365 days a year, even Christmas and Chinese New Year. We don’t really have special meal plans for Chinese New Year, but sometimes we get donated food. Mostly wholesalers supply to us; the celery was from the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market. The meats are mostly chicken and fish; mostly from frozen food. Some of them give us their leftovers at the end of the day, and others just want to throw them away because they know it can’t sell.”
Willing Hearts is one of the country’s more established charities, with no shortage of volunteers. And yet, looking at the meagre assembly that had arrived that stormy morning to cut and peel vegetables, I knew that this stream of volunteers was not so much a blessing as it was a necessity. It was an unfortunate reality that the best of intentions could not always guarantee the best of support or resources. The volunteers might have been eager, but not all of them were equally equipped to handle their tasks (there were two people that day who fainted after accidentally cutting their fingers), and the sorry quality of the meat and vegetables the kitchen had to make do with made it a daily race to process the ingredients in time so that Willing Hearts’ beneficiaries all over the country could get possibly the only hot meals they would have that day.
And yet, the variety of volunteers I had seen was surprising. Children as young as six were packing food alongside teen-aged schoolgirls and septuagenarians. There was even a group of old housewives who would come without fail every morning to help out while their husbands were out working. A whole spectrum of Singaporeans were willing to devote a little bit of their lives each day to contribute to this cause. And as long as there are people willing to help, this operation would be able to survive.
In that stormy morning, I felt I learned a little about hope.