“MALAYSIA’s my home, and this is my home improvement,” said Joycelyn Lee, in part explaining the start of the social initiative called Pit Stop Community Café.
Started with co-founder Andrea Tan in April 2016, the café is housed in one of Kuala Lumpur’s pre-World War II three-storey shophouses on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee. Actually, KL folk will know the area as ‘Bangkok Bank bus stop’ while older city people will remember the road as Jalan Bandar or even High Street.
In this neo-Gothic styled building, Lee and Tan serve meals ranging from fried rice to croissant and eggs during the day but come 5.30pm, the entrance’s aluminium shutter is raised to “street clients” — the aged, the homeless and the city’s poor.
It’s a public holiday and most of the soup kitchens are closed, so the queue snakes down a few shophouses. Pit Stop served 174 people that day.
The big blue enamel pots hold oats porridge, vegetable and meat stew, green bean bubur and red bean bubur. Pieces of bread, looking like sourdough, and biscuits are handed out as well. “That’s basically the menu. The bubur harkens back to my Peranakan roots,” said Lee. “It’s comfort food.”
“The street clients are seniors so their system can’t handle solid food that well, explained Tan, adding that a nutritionist advice was sought about the food.
Said Lee: “While other soup kitchens serve pre-packed food, here they get to choose what they want, and pay if they can. It gives them a sense of dignity.”
It’s obvious from the volunteers milling around that the café lives up to its aim of “being a place for people who want to give back to the society but have little or no knowledge on how to do so”.
Sales executives, a teacher and yours truly (a must-do for any interviewer of the cherubic-faced duo) are on the volunteer food line. Someone is cleaning the stand fans. We wipe old bubur stains off the white walls and the wooden tables with soapy cloths, arrange the plastic bowls with plastic spoons in them, and then ladle out the food to those in the queue. Hands are sanitised before the ladling begins.
“They must queue,” said Lee. “It’s part of reminding them about courtesy and civility. If they don’t and jump the queue, we firmly tell them to go back in line. And they do.
“They are allowed as many refills as they wish, but they must queue again for that.”
Dinner ends at 7pm, or until the food is finished. The statistics on the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pitstopcafekl/) states that the café averages 4,500 people and 6,500 portions of food served monthly. So far, from Jan 1 to Aug 31, 2017, it has served 32,576 people and 52,541 portions of food.
The street clients eat their fill in the Spartan café with its cement floor, walls boasting only the kitchen wish-list, and other need-to-know information on paper. Some people sit on the raised embankment of the five-foot way.
It seems everyone knows each other, including Lee and Tan. Well, it helps that that the chef was once one of them. About since months ago, said Lee, one of the street clients offered to help in the kitchen, with general cleaning. It turned out that he was a chef in London, with a restaurant of his own. Some hard times later saw him on the streets of KL.
He seems happy to be part of Pit Stop’s kitchen crew, a core team also comprising volunteers who ensures cleanliness and quality control of the food and drinks served.
The chef is a good example of one of the reasons behind the setting up of the café. “We wanted to help Malaysians with food, and training so that – if they wanted – they could return to mainstream society.”
Tan and Lee organise basic culinary skills, kitchen management training, hairstyling, English Language classes – for anyone who’s willing to learn – so that they can find jobs or be placed in jobs.
In fact, the Pit Stop Community Cafe has an intensive culinary programme for underprivileged youths aged between 16 and 39 years.
They are given intensive skills training in the kitchen and upon completion of the training, internships and job placements in some of the most notable cafes and restaurants in Kuala Lumpur are found, enabling them to break out of the cycle of poverty.
“All costs – including food, accommodation, uniforms, training materials, transportation and a daily stipend – are borne by the Pit Stop. It can each up to RM30,000 per person. So, sponsors and donations are most welcome at www.simplygiving.com/Social/pitstop,” said Lee.
Counselling is mandatory under this programme. A psychotherapist volunteers her services at the café once a week, with an office on the first floor.
“I think our mental health care system needs to be strengthened. We’ve noticed that the people on the streets need mental care help… like for stress, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies, depression. We’ve noticed some of our street clients hold OKU (Orang Kurang Upaya) cards,” said Lee.
The initiative to this social enterprise came after a time of soul-searching for Lee and Tan. “It was insomnia, and I started driving around the city at night, after work. I started to see all these people sleeping on the five-foot-ways, under LRT platforms…
“It was like a wake-up call, why are they there? I told Andrea,” said former journalist Lee, who quit her corporate communications job for this venture.
“Yes, she took me along one night… I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I cried so much,” recalled Tan, former IT writer.
So, they began to give out mats under Project Tikar, but the duo knew they could do more.
Said Lee: “We have so much and here are these people, homeless… Some of them are educated and articulate.”
But the duo stress that Pit Stop Community Cafe is not a non-governmental organisation but a social enterprise – which means it’s audited and donations are not tax-exempted – and that it is trying in its own way to help the city’s poor and homeless.
Cost of running the café is kept down through rescuing food that’s still edible – cans of food nearing the expiry date, dented cans, or surplus stocks.
“We work with Food Aid Foundation, Kechara Soup Kitchen, Pertiwi Soup Kitchen, Reach Out Malaysia, wholesalers, organic farms… I guess we have created our own ecosystem because these agencies initially didn’t speak to each other.”
Tan said: “We were surprised at how much food is wasted. The food is still good, just you know, wilted leaves, not so pretty fruits. But it took a lot of knocking on doors.”
Through the café’s food rescue efforts, an average of two tons of food per month is saved, and the amount is growing. The food is either repurposed for dinner service or redistributed to food banks such as the Food Aid Foundation, among others.
“Since we don’t have trucks to take the rescued food, or storage space, we depend on those who do, like Food Aid Foundation,” said Lee.
Its FB page is rife with stories of homeless Malaysians needing items many will dismiss as inconsequential like rubber slippers, Good Morning towels, mosquito coils, Dettol soap, and Minyak Cap Kapak / Tiger Balm, among others.
For Lee, starting this social enterprise is to be able to help bring a smile back on a tired face, worn out from too many cares perhaps
As she put it: “My place, my family, my heart is here.”
** cover pic is from commons wikimedia.