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Strangers #9 & #10 - Margaret and Paul, Ngunnawal Street Pantries

“Out of all those kind of people

You got a face with a view

I’m just an animal looking for a home

Share a space for a minute or two”

This Must be the Place by David Byrne

The last 6 months have been hard for Margaret and Paul.  They had to have one of their loved dogs put down.  Paul has some ongoing medical issues that are worrying but also taking time away from what they do.  Margaret’s mother is not well and now in a nursing home. The neighbours have complained about the shed in the front and the number of cars in the court; turning in the driveways seems to be a particular problem.  The question I have for them is why do they keep doing this?

Margaret and Paul’s home is a busy place.  People come and go, the floor is covered with dogs, one very large one, and a smaller one.  The floor is also strewn with a variety of small toys that Margaret is making her way through.  I have been following the Ngunnawal Street Pantries on Facebook for some time now.  They offer food, clothes, goods and company to anyone who needs it.  Posts go out looking to match fridges and other white goods with people who need them, and sometimes need them in some urgency.  The posts also tell the Facebook community they have been offered an abundance of rolls, or fruit or other fresh goods.  Facebook also sees callouts of goods requested, and advice when the pantries will be open and closed.

The posts also speak to Margaret’s exasperation at those who use the pantries: “The pantries will be closed today as they were left in a mess yesterday several times and I spent quite a bit of my day cleaning up after people.  I do not have the time or energy for this.”

Margaret and Paul’s lives revolve around the needs of the community who now use the pantries and that is not just the people who take food, white-goods, clothes or toys but those who also offer and make donations.  Living a life this public can be hard work; you are always ‘on’.

So, my question is why do they do this?  Margaret tells me that she grew up in a highly disfunctional family.  “It was Dad’s way or the highway.”  And this has instilled in her a desire to ease the life for those around her.  “If I can make another person’s life easier then I am a success.”  She was a Lifeline volunteer for many years. This taught her about ‘unconditional positive regard” the concept that you accept anyone whatever they tell you or how they act. 

It is a slightly different story for Paul.  He was looking for community and they have built one together with a “Tsunami” of their two desires coming together.  Their drives complement each other.  

Working out of their garage the redistribution of food started before COVID but ramped up during lockdowns.  They both tell, with pride, about how they get donations from the public service, how Vinnies now refer to them, how Night Patrol come to them for blankets, how Amcal Chemist came to them to offer free flu jabs and administered 120 in 5 hours, how they can get things, most things, even hard to get things, to someone who needs them in 48 hours.  They are more reactive than the major charities and they accept donations that large charities do not; electrical goods.  They do not check healthcare cards or other ways to show income.  The whole operation works on trust.

It is not just the assistance they give people when they need it but they are both equally proud of the relationships they have made and the community they have built.  People who now volunteer first turned up because they needed somewhere to go and to be listened to.  Paul tells me a few stories of volunteers who came because they were lonely, were looking for something to do or to feel purpose or in grief.  Margaret tells me, with awe, about how she can put out a request for an item, crutches, baby mat, or mortar and pestle and they will just show up.  They see themselves as a conduit for good.  There are known mental health benefits for those of us who offer something of themselves; time and energy, goods or money.  It makes us feel good.

Although the Ngunnawal Street Pantries is about giving it, it is not a free for all. Margaret and Paul do impose rules:

Gold coin donation on entering. (This pays for a steady stream of staples which are purchased to go in food packs.) 

Donation drop offs have to be arranged. 

Leave things as you found them. 

Only one basket per family (unless there is an abundance).

Take what you need, offer what you can. 

Treat everyone with respect.

These are sensible rules that I would hope would not need reiterating but sometimes they have to be enforced.  Paul tells me about the couple who put buttons or foreign coins in the Gold Coin Collection tin to make it sound like they are putting in the right thing.  Paul and Margaret do not hesitate in shaming, on Facebook, people who flout these rules and steal or dump rubbish on them.  They have cameras set up into their driveway and will share footage.

There was a time after COVID that they operated 7 days but they had to pull back from this.  Showing themselves some unconditional positive regard they now only open Thursday to Sunday and have set things up in a way that means they do not have to be physically standing there the whole time. There are only the two of them who run the operation but they do get volunteers who assist with sorting, dropping things off to the Green Shed or other charities or to do tip runs. They open over a weekend as many of the charities are not available on Saturdays or Sundays. 

The third tenet of their operation is no waste.  Everything they get donated by individuals, local businesses or Second Bite is passed on to the those who need it; a person or an animal.  Any food left over from deliveries, past its use by date or cannot be eaten goes to a local animal place to feed ponies.  This is the Third Bite. The environment and leaving the place better than you found it is a consideration in every action they take.

Margaret and Paul’s response to what they see and what they feel they need in their lives is an expression of love.  It is the antidote to the stranger danger tales, the suspicion we feel for others who do not fit into our world view. Margaret and Paul sonder.

In his book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Keoning gives words to feelings.

Sonder - Used as an Adjective or Noun 

The moment when you realise that all strangers have as vivid and complex an inner life as your own.  Populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, triumphs and inherited craziness.  - an epic story that continues invisible around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Julia Baird, in her book, “Bright Shining; how grace changes everything.” highlights the importance and significance of encounters with strangers and how they are often overlooked but can have an impact on our lives.  She points out that we should be aware of sonder.  While we are the main characters in our own lives there are a myriad of shows going on around us so we are simultaneously a side character or extra in someone else’s show.  

If we all sondered more and accepted that everyone has their own story and that we are just a bit part in that would we all be happier? 

Happiness is not a thing that can be measured easily.  First there is the definition: what does happiness mean? Does it mean the same thing to everyone? Do we have a universal understanding of what happiness means?

The term eudaimonia, first described by Aristotle, coming from two words: eu (good or well-meaning) and daimon (to divide, or a lesser god) it is often translated as ‘happiness’ in modern times and has become a big thing in economics. The World Values Survey and the Gallup World Poll investigate how people feel about their lives. Questions investigate their whole lives from work, to recreation, to where they live and what they aspire to. Using this data it is hoped that eudaimonia can be distilled down to a variable like income or to the number of friends we have.

In his book Happy City Charles Montgomery describes how this data does not give any definitives, no one thing can make anyone happy, but the data does show that there are protective factors in how happy we feel. Wealth, employment, education and location, recreation all play a part in how happy an individual feels.  If you live in a poor country, getting richer does help with happiness.  If you cannot feed your family, house them or send them to school this would impact on your happiness, but once you have passed the average income mark the effect diminishes and working harder to provide those things can be detrimental.  People who work are happier than people who do not even in places with generous welfare systems.  Well-educated people rate happier than those without an education.  Country folk are generally happier than those in cities and those next to the ocean even more so.  Short commutes, believing in some sort of god and showing up for church or temple, whether you believe or not, as well as volunteering all contribute to happiness.  How we live also matters.  Research on the public housing tenants in Greenwich found that living with mould in your flat  impacts your happiness more than walking past piles of dog poo daily or rubbish piled up on the streets. There are locational things that are detrimental to happiness: living under a flight path, near a garbage waste dump, persistent wind.  

Carol Ryff, an academic at University of Wisconsin, argues that this type of data does not get us closer to finding out what Aristotle meant by eudaimonia.  She explains that he meant it is not about visions of happiness (Aristotle’s example was of a cow in a field contentedly chewing cud) but is about getting up each day to work hard towards making your life meaningful.  Sometimes this is in ways that are not at all conducive to short-term contentment.  Ryff argues that happiness is about potential and talent being realized and the feeling that you can make the most of your abilities.

This feels intuitively correct on many levels for me.  Paul and Margaret must get up on many days and feel like what they are doing is hard work.  Days when they have to give up doing other things to tidy the pantries or fix up things people have stolen, or deal with rubbish people have dumped.  Overall though they are offering what they can in a way that feels they are doing what they should do.

Ryff has come up with a checklist of eudaimonia melding the ideas for well-being from the most respected psychologists from the last century.

  • Self-acceptance or how well do you regard yourself

  • Environmental mastery; ability to navigate and thrive in the world

  • Positive relations with others

  • Personal growth throughout life

  • Sense of meaning and purpose

  • Feelings of autonomy and independence

Sounding a little like a list from a self-help book or a day time TV show it also does not seem like an impossible task.  Does it have benefits?

Ryff tested this with research on a group of women between 60 -90.  The women who scored more highly against these measures had better health outcomes; resistance to arthritis and diabetes, less cortisol, they slept longer and deeper, giving them lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Doing what you feel you should, in a way of your choosing with people you get on with has positive life outcomes.  Helping strangers and doing good for the environment adds to this.

Margaret and Paul have an exit plan.  They know they are unable to sustain what they do forever, as much as they love to do it.  They have given themselves 12 months to find another organisation or individual who would like to pick up what they have started.  “This job is a privilege’’ says Paul.  To see the 8 year old with a shoebox filled with things they have collected to be passed onto others because they want to help in some way, to offer people 5 cinnamon buns not just two in a day and to hear one visitor say to another about them, “they saved a life” is all part of the job they do.

It was a privilege to meet Margaret and Paul who generously gave me time on a busy day.  Thank you.  I also thank you for the work you do, everyday, unconditionally giving to the community you have built.  I also thank you for the opportunity to offer goods to others.  For anyone who wants to visit the pantries they are located at 22 Bullala Court, Ngunnawal.  Donations are made by appointment and can be made via the Facebook page.  

This blog post was done with the cooperation for Margaret and Paul. Images from Paul.


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