Everyone has the right to live their life to its fullest potential.
But we know that there are times when people find barriers in their way.
For those times we will be there, providing practical assistance and a listening ear.
As we learn to live with COVID-19 and reconnect with those dear to us, this winter brings an opportunity to share hearty meals with family and friends.
But for many people, winter brings a world of worry.
One program in Ballarat is helping to fill bellies and keep young people in the region connected to their community and loved ones.
Meals for Change supports vulnerable young people to buy discounted meals in local cafes.
Through the program, young people pay just $3 towards the cost of a meal in any of the 8 partnering cafes, up to the value of $15.
Cafes are then reimbursed the balance by Uniting.
The program also allows young people to bring a family member or friend as a guest and they can receive a discount on both meals.
This gives young people who are going through a tough time a chance to connect with their loved ones.
Meals for Change receives no government funding; it relies solely on grants and the generosity of people in the community.
“The program is about more than just providing affordable meals to youth in crisis,” says program co-ordinator, Jen, who started the program in 2016.
“Most importantly, we give young people a sense of community and belonging. They know they are safe and welcome, which is something many of us take for granted.
“Through the program, we can also offer support to pursue education and training opportunities that help people find work and stability.”
Tom credits the program for helping him turn his life around.
Six years ago, he had found himself homeless.
At just 18 years-old, Tom was left devastated by the death of his father.
Still reeling from his beloved dad’s passing, Tom and his mother moved to Ballarat.
“I became depressed and withdrawn,” says Tom.
“It was a really tough time.”
With his mental health deteriorating, Tom was unable to find work.
This put a strain on his relationship with his mother.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I moved out,” recalls Tom.
Tom spent the next year living in a Uniting boarding house.
At the same time, Jen was in the process of setting up Meals for Change.
“The housing and crisis team referred me to Jen,” says Tom.
“She was setting up the program and asked me to be a secret shopper to see which businesses would be suitable for the program.
“I was happy to help. I knew the program would be helpful to myself and others going through difficult times.
“When you’re on Centrelink and living paycheck to paycheck, you only have enough money to scrape by and pay for the essentials.
“Meals for Change gave me a chance to connect with my community, even if I was down to my last $20 of the week.
“I could eat tasty, healthy and hearty meals. A full stomach at the end of the day is always a good feeling.
“But more importantly for me, I regained my social life.
“The café staff were always so friendly and welcoming.
“I felt free of judgement, and I was able to relax and enjoy myself.
“It helped me get my mental health back on track.”
Now in his late twenties, Tom no longer accesses the program, which is available to young people aged 15 – 25 years of age.
He has found long-term housing and is the proud father of a 4-year-old son, Ben.
Tom has also started his own gardening business.
He says he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for the support he received 6 years ago.
“Jen is my guardian angel at Uniting,” says Tom.
“Thanks to her support, I was able to get my licence and start working.
“She was always friendly and welcoming. We would talk about my goals and how I could achieve them.
“I have no doubt if I hadn’t received that help when I was at my lowest, things would be very different for me today.
“I have a friend who is couch-surfing at the moment and I’ve told her how Uniting helped me change my future.
“I hope they can help her too.”
More than 300 young people have accessed the program since it started.
Over 7100 meals have been served to young people and their loved ones.
“I never realised how significant it is to sit in a cafe and have a meal and feel safe and at ease with the world. That is what I hear time and time again,” says Jen.
“This program isn’t just about filling bellies, it’s about filling the soul.”
With your support we can be there for people of all ages and stages of life when they need us most thanks to programs like Meals for Change.