I’m not a morning person, I’ve never lived in East London and I’m not big fan of fry-ups. So why do I get up before the crack of dawn to trek over to Whitechapel Road in order to cook and serve breakfast with the Whitechapel Mission? The reason is simple: the Mission provides a lifeline to anyone who really needs help. By spending just a few mornings at the Mission each year, not only can you experience that need first hand, but you can also deliver help to those who need it, literally on a plate.
Dentons has been supporting the Whitechapel Mission since 2006. During this time we’ve made ourselves at home: our coffee mugs even appear in the kitchen cupboards. At Dentons, we have a rota system for staff, which means that volunteers can swap if they can’t make a session. The rota system is a really good opportunity to meet colleagues who you might not otherwise work with on a day-to-day basis.
The Mission’s customers come from all walks of life; some are regulars and some are there for the first time. In the serving queue I have witnessed marriage proposals, serenades, smooth (and not so smooth) dance moves, fisticuffs and squabbling, numerous complaints about our cooking, occasional compliments about our cooking, and some very unusual food combinations (such as baked beans and raspberry jam).
The staff are truly amazing. They get up ridiculously early every day for a start, and you’re guaranteed to have a really good laugh with them. If you’re lucky, they might even give you a keyring at the end of your session. As well as serving hot food and drinks, the Mission offers shower facilities, clothing, and a Lifeskills Centre that enables people to change direction and turn their lives around. It really is a lifeline, entirely supported by volunteers and donations.
The staff and volunteers are often assisted by community service workers. Some of my fellow legal colleagues, not being aware of this, have been rather confused when asked by customers what crimes they have committed.
The amount of food that is cooked and served each day is quite something. Approximately 18 loaves of bread need to be toasted and buttered, 250 eggs fried, umpteen cans of baked beans, tinned tomatoes and mushrooms heated up in big pans, and more sausages and bacon rashers than you can imagine cooked in enormous ovens. It was something of a relief for me to discover that you don’t need to be able to demonstrate any more than basic cookery skills to be a volunteer, but plenty of stamina and enthusiasm (even if it is induced by caffeine) is a definite advantage.
When I see the wonderful work of the Mission on just one of the 365 days a year that it opens its doors to everyone, getting out of bed and getting down there when it’s my turn on the staff rota is the very least I can do to help make a real difference to people who are truly in need. The only downside I find is going back to the office afterwards for a full day’s work, wafting around the aromas of eau de frying pan. Having spent a morning at the Mission, though, I know this is no hardship at all.
Eleanor Reeves, Senior Associate at Dentons