At the Free Dinner Project in LYS were Caitriona Hickey, volunteer, Martin Maglouvska, chef, Nachappa Puchimanda, volunteer and Siobhan Wheeler, Trust chairperson PICTURE: Gareth Williams
SUNDAY dinner is a tradition held in many families across the county, country and even beyond.
One particular Limerick group have adopted this tradition, and have taken on a whole new, special, and large family in doing so.
The Free Dinner Trust (often called the Trust) provides a free dinner service to around 75 diners in Limerick each Sunday, and on certain public holidays.
The Trust is the brainchild of founder and chairperson Siobhan Wheeler, who is a preacher with the Methodist Church.
“People were telling me what it was like to be on the streets, and a lot said that the worst day was Sunday,” says Siobhan, “it was the longest day as there was no other services available for them.
“So we decided we would try and do something.”
This was in 2012, and fast-forward to seven years later, the registered charity now provides Sunday dinners for often over 100 people every week.
The service operates Limerick Youth Service café in Glentworth Street, and so far has gained more than 50 volunteers overall, with 10-12 who help out each week.
The Trust receives funding from the Redemptorist Poor Campaign and the JP McManus Charitable Foundation.
Every Sunday, work starts in the café at 10am, when food preparation and cooking begin in the kitchen, under the supervision of a professionally-qualified chef and assisted by two volunteers.
The door is opened to diners promptly at 1.30pm and dinners are served from then until 3:30pm sharp, when serving finishes.
Weekly menus offer choice from favourite childhood comfort foods with occasional exotic flavours to add a little spice – and no limit is placed on the number of servings per person.
As well as providing meals, the Trust also offers a social outlet, where diners can chat and receive practical advice.
“While some of the diners may perhaps be in a position to provide their own meals, they attend each Sunday simply because of loneliness,” says Siobhan, “quite a few people suffer from depression, some people come in and sit on their own while others sit in groups. It’s home for everyone.
“Our human need of each other is evident as many linger at the dinner for the friendly, jovial atmosphere, hungry not only for food but for compassion and human warmth, valuing an opportunity to interact socially with each other.”
“Conversations can also result in practical advice and resources for those who may not otherwise have known where to direct their enquiry, perhaps especially so for those who are not Irish,” she added.
Fellow trustee Gordon Milne agreed: “We’re trying to provide far more than food, though the food is very good. We’re trying to push the psychological side, the softer side.
“Every so often someone says that there’s far more to this than simply getting a nice meal.”
Siobhan also explained how conversation around the table unites everyone at the Trust, and how it is recognised that given slightly altered circumstances any of them might be in the other’s shoes.
“When you read the paper or listen to the radio about the homelessness, a lot of people think of homeless as them, they’re separate and distinct and othered,” she said.
“When you come in, you realise that it doesn’t take much for you to trade places and your life circumstances and needs are similar.”
For a number of diners, the Trust has provided the opportunity to integrate into a work-like environment, as they choose to volunteer with meal-prep and serving.
“If you’re involved in the production of something you're part of a team and it give you a new social circle,” explained Siobhan.
“It gives an opening into that world of economics and workforce and the social respectability that comes with that.”
In the dining room, the constant hum of upbeat chatter and clinking of cutlery, paired with the welcoming smell of hot food provides an incredibly homely environment.
“There’s a feel-good thing about this,” said Siobhan, “we really feel that we’re a family. It’s heart-warming to see the happy and lively interaction between members
“Once you’ve been in here, you go into the dining room and your heart is just filled with love.”
Anyone who would like to volunteer or give a financial contribution towards the Trust can email Siobhán Wheeler at email@example.com or Gordon Milne at gordonmilne firstname.lastname@example.org