“MALAYSIA’s my home, and this is my home improvement ,” said Joycelyn Lee, in part explaining the start of the social initiativecalled Pit Stop Community Cafe.
Started with co-founder Andrea Tan in April last year, the cafe is housed in one of Kuala Lumpur’s pre-World War 2 three-storey shophouses in Jalan Tun H.S. Lee.
KL folk will know the area as the “Bangkok Bank bus stop” while older city people will remember the road as Jalan Bandar or High Street.
In this neo-Gothic-styled building, Lee and Tan serve meals ranging from fried rice to croissants 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 Community Cafe served 174 people that day.
The big blue enamel pots hold oats porridge, vegetables and meat stew, green bean bubur and red bean bubur. Pieces of bread, looking like sourdough, and biscuits are handed out, too.
“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’s advice was sought about the food.
Lee said: “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 cafe lives up to its aim of “being a place for people who want to give back to society but have little or no knowledge of 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,” Lee said.
“It’s part of reminding them about courtesy and civility.
“If they don’t and jump the queue, we 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/) state that the cafe averages 4,500 people and 6,500 portions offood are served monthly.
From Jan1to Aug 31, it had served 32,576 people and 52,541 portions of food.
The street clients eat their fill in the spartan cafe 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 a chef was in the kitchen team. But he was once a street client.
About a month ago, said Lee, the chef 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 Community Cafe’s kitchen crew, a core team comprising volunteers who ensure 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 cafe.
“We wanted to help Malaysians with food and training so that — if they wanted—they could return to mainstream society,” Lee said.
Tan and Lee organise basic culinary skills, kitchen management training, hairstyling and 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 youth between 16 and 39.
They are given intensive skills training in the kitchen and upon completion, internships and job placements in some of the most notable cafes and restaurants in KL 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 Community Cafe.
“It can reach up to RM30,000 per person. So, sponsors and donations are most welcome at www.simplygiving.com/Social/pitstop,” Lee said.
Counselling is mandatory under this programme. A psychotherapist volunteers her services at the cafe once a week, with an office on the first floor.
“I think our mental healthcare system needs to be strengthened.
“We’ve noticed that the people on the streets need mental care… like for stress, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies and depression.
“We’ve noticed some of our street clients holding 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 Light Rail Transit platforms…
“It was like a wake-up call, why are they there? I asked 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, a former information technology writer.
So, they began to give out mats under Project Tikar, but the duo knew they could do more.
Lee said: “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.
The cost of running the cafe is kept down through rescuing food that’s still edible — cans of food nearing their 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,” Lee said.
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 cafe’s food-rescue efforts, an average of two tonnes 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 Facebook page is rife with stories of homeless Malaysians needing items many will dismiss as inconsequential like rubber slippers, Good Morning towels, mosquito coils, Dettol soaps, and Minyak Cap Kapak or 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.
As she put it: “My place, my family, my heart is here.”