It started as a little post-retirement activity but Rita Mastin now volunteers five days a week at a free community centre food store in Melbourne’s west.
“An absolute angel”, is how a colleague refers to Mrs Mastin, one of a team of volunteers who, along with centre staff, sort, pack and give donated goods to those doing it tough in the pandemic.
From me to you: Volunteer Rita Mastin with recipients Edwin, centre, and Denis at Birdcage community store. Credit:Eddie Jim
The service, at Wyndham Park community centre, in Werribee, is called Birdcage community store, after a local housing estate, but there are no celebrities sipping champagne, as in Flemington Racecourse’s Birdcage enclosure.
Among recipients attending the weekly Thursday collection session were refugee families, single mothers fleeing domestic violence, an elderly woman unable to return to India and unemployed men.
As usual, there to hand over boxes, refer them to support services, or just chat was Mrs Mastin.
The 57-year-old retired at the end of 2019 after 12 years’ running a secondary school canteen.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, her friend and the food store’s co-ordinator Christine Mackaness asked Mrs Mastin to help cook meals from donated vegetables.
A year ago, the United Sikhs group took over cooking meals, and so Mrs Mastin started sorting donated goods into boxes – everything from rice to bread, vegetables, fruit juice and toilet paper.
Two days volunteering has become five days, but she loves it. “It works both ways,” said Mrs Mastin, a grandmother of two, whose disabled adult son attends a nearby day centre.
“It’s got me out of the house and it boosts your confidence knowing you’re doing something that somebody appreciates.”
Mrs Mastin does an ‘awesonme job’.Credit:Eddie Jim
In the past 12 months, the number of boxes the Birdcage has given out has gone from 40 to 160. Clients come from as far as Williamstown. Some sleep on the banks of Werribee Creek.
“Some say, ‘thank God for this food, because otherwise, I don’t know what I’d be eating’,” Mrs Mastin said.
Ms Mackaness thinks the rise in demand is due to people loosing jobs. “They’ve lost houses even, some of them. “I think there’s always been poverty, but now there’s not that stigma attached to it.”
Of Mrs Mastin, she says, “She is an absolute angel. “She’s very friendly and welcoming to people. All ages seem to gravitate towards her.
Zeina, with children Jason and Selena, picks up a box of groceries. Credit:Eddie Jim
“One lady with a mental illness always looks to Rita to help her. All the families tend to open up to her about things.”
Syrian immigrant Zeina, 30, who came with daughter Selena, 7, and son Jason, 2, said her husband has been offered just two days a week of factory work lately, with interruptions due to COVID-19 exposures.
She said the volunteers were “very good people”.
Denis, 42, who hasn’t worked for several months, said he and his father Edwin, 74, and their relatives would struggle without this service.
“It’s a big relief for me, getting the little essentials like the bread, milk and eggs.”
Denis said Mrs Mastin always asked if they have what they needed. “The work she does is excellent, helping the community with food. I think it’s an awesome job, what she does.”
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