Every year, Garry Rashid helps to cook a Christmas dinner for guests at Streetlytes — a homeless charity and soup kitchen in Shepherd's Bush.
"Time flies quickly, which is both good and bad, I guess"
12pm is lunchtime for most people, but for me it's the time I get to the kitchen. We have another team in that serves an earlier Christmas lunch for the elderly people, who come along to watch whatever black and white film is being shown. I help with serving that up.
Time flies fairly quickly in my kitchen which is both good and bad, I guess. It hits 2.30pm and the film is wrapped up, the team bustles about clearing up, getting ready for me to take over. They say goodbye to me at 3pm. Now it's my time. I get my utensils and survey the food we had donated that morning. I try to always do a full three courses: a soup, main and a dessert.
"It's all under control — even with the somewhat unruly year six children who have chosen to help out"
We are blessed at Streetlytes that we have the support and the full run of St Stephen's Church kitchen, even if the space isn't ideal. I get my few volunteers to work — peeling, slicing and doing basic prep for the food we are going to serve. Christmas is upon us, and the school attached to the church has already been cooking the turkeys and potatoes thankfully, so I run through to the school kitchen to check on the progress of the food. It's going well and the cooks have it all under control — even with the somewhat unruly year six children who have chosen to help out this year.
"They say it's the best soup of all the homeless kitchens in the area"
I head back into my kitchen. The soup is starting to smell good, and the team has finished prepping my parsnips for roasting too. In the chaos of the three-hour prep for the kitchen, I take a five-minute break to have a smoke. I step outside and am greeted by some of our guests. They ask how I've been, how my new daughter is doing, and how my son's school is going. For a brief moment I forget all about the differences we have. We are just people sat chatting about the mundane things in life. However, I have to head back into the kitchen. Last year we had a lot of sleeping bags donated but there aren't any this year, unfortunately. We do, however, have a lot of warm winter coats to give out, so we get a team together sizing and organising them for the guests to grab one.
The guests love the mini pigs in blankets I introduced two years ago into the meal. Every year there are four gentlemen who sit directly next to where the food gets sent out, always discussing the soups with me and constantly challenging me to do better with it. But they also say it's the best soup of all the homeless kitchens in the area.
"We have a lady who travels in her wheelchair for 45 minutes"
Most of the guests are local although we have a lady who travels in her wheelchair for 45 minutes to come and spend the evening with us. We don't have crackers or hats, but we do try to get a small gift for each of our guests for when they are leaving. Nothing big, but even something as simple as a card saying 'Merry Christmas' and a £5 gift card to be able to get some food really goes a long way.
At 6pm last year, the kids from the school came and sung carols while we served the soup. I hope that it will be the same this year, as I know the guests liked it. If not though, we do have a Christmas film to put on. I never know what the film is, but there is always one playing in the background.
"That was when I made the decision that if I were ever able to help others, I would"
I reflect on my life sometimes, in my kitchen while I have a few minutes. I remember my homelessness, my struggles before I finally got settled into my flat, my life and now my family. I know it's hard to live street homeless, or even sofa surfing or being on the poverty line. This time of year is especially hard, as a lot of our guests, for whatever reason, are estranged from their families.
When I was homeless over Christmas, I struggled. I had a broken relationship until recently with my family. I had a lot of anger and alcohol issues growing up and I nearly destroyed my family because of it. Christmas in 2012 was my hardest one. I sat Christmas Day outside St Thomas' Hospital. One of the guards bought me a turkey sandwich, and that was when I made the decision that if I were ever able to help others to not have a Christmas like I did that day, I would. Now I am happy that I can serve others in this way.
We do what we can for that brief time to relieve the pain of being broke, homeless, alone, scared... whatever the guest might be going through. Although we may not be able to fix it permanently, we try to relieve it for this short time.
Find out more about Streelytes London, and donate on their website.