Parties with layers of purpose
1 July 2013
“The breakfasts are a big party – we really make it big so that the kids walk in and go, ‘wow, we didn’t realise it would be this good’. It is something very special in the middle of what is often a very hard time in their lives.” –Salvation Army Major Melba Crisostomo
There were bales of hay, real ducks and chickens in an enclosure and even a homemade “cow” complete with gloves for udders. But, most importantly, there were around 120 delighted kids and parents/carers at the “Fun on the Farm” themed community breakfast at The Salvation Army’s Centennial Lodge homelessness crisis centre in Cairns.
The breakfasts, held monthly between February and November, are not only a firm favourite with Cairns locals, but also very special to the children staying at the centre.
Started four years ago, the breakfasts have developed to give homeless children who are living short term at the crisis centre with their mothers, the chance to mix in their own temporary “home” with local children. The breakfasts also serve to help maintain contact with the families who have moved on from the service.
“It is critically important that the kids in crisis care experience some joy,” Salvation Army Centennial Lodge team leader Elizabeth Marshall says. “They all love the breakfasts.”
The aim is to make the breakfasts, which are run in conjunction with the local Salvation Army corps (church), spectacular events because many staying in the service have already experienced great pain, dislocation, stress and loss in their young lives.
As well as a fun day, there is always a short interactive devotional and the chance for the kids to learn new skills.
A breakfast held last year was particularly educational. “Master Chef 2” began with a hot breakfast banquet and fruit platters, and cookie decorating for the kids. It also featured nutritional talks by a number of local chefs led by Centennial Lodge head chef Jos Thys and Australian Culinary Federation North Queensland branch president Brian Down.
The Centennial Lodge service offers a three-month maximum crisis accommodation service for men, another for single women, a service for women with children, plus a patient transfer scheme.
According to Centennial Lodge women’s service manager, Salvation Army Major Melba Crisostomo, a significant percentage of the women with children have come from situations of domestic violence. Others have had issues with drugs and alcohol, financial problems, and loss of accommodation.
A holistic approach
While the service works to stabilise the homeless adults by assisting with housing applications, job applications, job searches, living skills classes, referrals to counsellors, TAFE enrolments and, if required, referrals to mental health workers, staff are also aware that many of the children present to the service with their own deep needs.
“Whatever the problems in the family, the children are often really affected,” says Melba. Helping with referrals to counsellors and assisting with school enrolments and acquiring uniforms are important, say the staff at Centennial, but they also believe that a simple bit of fun and friendship is just as vital.
Melba says the breakfasts are hugely popular with the children who “count down the sleeps” to the events.
Along with their mothers, the kids take great ownership of the event, helping with planning and clean-up. At the same events, birthdays are also celebrated. “
We make it special for them because some don’t celebrate birthdays,” says Melba. “These are things that are taken for granted in families that can afford it, but even for them to receive a present is something very special.
She says that the positive experience becomes “a part of the lives of children”.
“We have lots who have been attending for four years,” Melba says.
“They just continue to come back for every breakfast. It is very special for them and lovely for us to remain a part of their lives.” And the joy is not confined to the kids.
After a recent breakfast, Melba says, “a little boy was tugging down my shirt to say something. So I knelt down and with a shy smile he said, ‘Thank you. This is the best party, ever’. Then he hugged me.
“I can still see the joy in his eyes,” adds Melba. “For me, it was beautiful. It was as if the Lord himself had just said, ‘Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these!’