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‘We do it all with love’: St Elesa Food Initiative supports those in need in Sydney

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When I recently arrived at Kogarah’s Greek Orthodox church, heavy raindrops were falling and the wind was bone-chilling but that didn’t dampen the spirits of the volunteers who were packing their cars with home-cooked food packages to take to the homeless and needy across Sydney.

“It’s a small gesture. It’s such a blessing to be able to do something like this. Just to give somebody some food and it gives them so much joy and the gratefulness that they have as well, it’s just a wonderful thing,” Peter Karanikas told The Greek Herald on the day.

Peter is one of the over 80 volunteers who offer their time and support to the St Elesa Food Initiative, which is a united effort between the Greek Orthodox parishes of Kogarah and Marrickville.

Peter Karanikas (left) preparing to deliver food to the homeless at Wentworth Park and Martin Place in Sydney. Photo: Andriana Simos / The Greek Herald.

Launched in October 2020 by His Grace Bishop Kyriakos of Sozopolis, the program provides free home-cooked meals, pantry items, clothes, furniture and sanitary packs to women, men and youth-based crisis centres and shelters, as well as families in social housing and the homeless.

Almost two years later, the program has donated approximately 2,500 meals packs and is now guided by His Grace Bishop Christodoulos of Magnesia, assisted by Father Athanasios Giatsios and the Kogarah Parish Philoptochos.

Bishop Christodoulos told The Greek Herald he was extremely proud of the work done by the St Elesa Food Initiative and its volunteers in such a short amount of time.

“This program is important because I believe and hope that the people who receive these packs from our parish understand that the Church supports them and we don’t discriminate because they are not only Orthodox or Greeks. They are people from our community…” the Bishop said.

Delivering food to the homeless. Photos supplied.

‘Anything we make for our family, we give to them’:

Father Athanasios joins my conversation with the Bishop at this stage and adds that the success of the program is all down to the volunteers who work tirelessly behind the scenes to cook roughly 400 home-cooked meals a week. These meals are then packed into a box with bread, fruit, dessert and a drink.

Volunteers in the kitchen.

“I think it’s beyond the feeling of rewarding. It’s not just the feeling of ‘I want to help now and next week I have some other commitment’,” Father Athanasios said.

“These are people that have committed for the whole year… and whatever the weather is, whatever is happening, you’ll see them coming through the week, spending a few hours in the kitchen. They’re very committed.”

Olga Houlakis (second from left) loves volunteering for the program. Photo: The Greek Herald / Andriana Simos.

Olga Houlakis is one of these volunteers. She joined the program from the very beginning and is now tasked with organising the food and volunteer rosters, as well as liaising with shelters and community organisations such as Bayside Women’s Shelter and People’s Pantry in Botany.

“We offer a variety of meals and we try to make them nutritious. Anything we make for our family we give to them. We don’t take any shortcuts and all the ladies do it with love,” Olga explained.

“It’s not just one day. You don’t just get here on a Monday and everything sort of falls into place. There’s constant preparation.”

Some of the volunteers in action in the kitchen. Photos: The Greek Herald / Andriana Simos.

Despite this, Olga said she wouldn’t have it any other way and she encouraged any one else who was interested to visit Kogarah parish and get involved in the St Elesa Food Initiative.

“I just keep doing it because I know that people are out there and if I don’t go and do it, who will go and do it?” Olga concluded.

“I mean God provides and even sometimes we think ‘oh wait, hold on, we didn’t get an extra box of bananas or there’s no sweets this week’ and then all of a sudden someone is going to turn up with a whole donation of cookies or something.

“So it always comes together and it’s just amazing to be a part of that.”

*If you’d like to contribute to the St Elesa Food Initiative, you can donate fresh food items such as meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables, as well as non-perishable pantry items, new and preloved clothing, hygiene products and monetary donations, gift cards or vouchers. For more information email: saintelessafoodinitiative@gmail.com.

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