When Sydney’s extended COVID-19 lockdown dashed the plans of Year 9 student Samantha Cherry to volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service during the recent school holidays, she didn’t miss a beat. Instead, she combined her love for cooking and her desire to support those in need through a ‘Cook 2 Connect’ fundraiser.
Samantha’s determination to volunteer was part of her Duke of Edinburgh Award, which she is doing as a cocurricular activity at Mount St Benedict College, a Good Samaritan Education school in Pennant Hills.
“The Award I’m working on now is about volunteering and community service,” she said.
Samantha had arranged to spend the school holidays volunteering with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in western Sydney, but the lockdown put an abrupt end to that.
Disappointed, Samantha began to explore how she could support JRS from her own home, and she turned to something she enjoys doing – cooking.
“I really love cooking,” she said. “I started cooking in about Year 7 and I’m doing it a lot more lately, so I thought that’s something I could do.”
Samantha decided to cook a meal from the Refugee Council of Australia’s Share a Meal, Share a Story cookbook, and offer servings of the dish to her neighbours for a donation to JRS through the ‘Cook 2 Connect’ initiative. She even offered contactless delivery options.
She prepared a letter-box drop, outlining what she’d be doing and asked her neighbours to send her a text message if they wished to take a meal and give a donation.
The neighbours were keen, so Samantha got busy cooking a Middle Eastern Aromatic Pilao Rice dish from the Refugee Council’s cookbook, distributing the fruits of her labour and collecting the donations for JRS.
“We have good neighbours,” she said. “I know the majority of them, so a fair few of them said yes to my invitation, which was really great.”
JRS Assistant Country Director, Maeve Brown, said Samantha’s ability to refocus her efforts in support of JRS when the lockdown hit was a model for others.
“She was one of the first to be proactive in how she pivoted when the lockdown came,” Maeve said.
“She was meant to come in during the school holidays and work as a volunteer, doing food packing and some administrative tasks.
“But that all changed very quickly. And then, completely on her own initiative, Samantha came up with something very practical to do, within her own home and neighbourhood.
“While she wasn’t able to deliver food to refugees and people seeking asylum, she was able to focus on engaging her own neighbours in a fundraising initiative. We were very impressed.”
Maeve said that with the needs of refugees and asylum seekers becoming even more acute during the pandemic, Samantha’s efforts could lead the way for others.
“She’s a good example of the type of thinking we’ll need going forward. We’re trying to figure out how to creatively engage with JRS’s volunteers, as well as parishes and schools, to continue to support refugees and people seeking asylum in these challenging times.”
Maeve said while refugees and asylum seekers were struggling before the pandemic, COVID-19 had exacerbated the level of need, the distress, and the lack of access to services.
A new survey conducted by JRS and Western Sydney University found asylum seekers faced considerable financial hardship and high levels of homelessness during the first 12 months of the pandemic.
“There are so few options available at the moment, so it’s wonderful to have a localised response, such as Samantha’s initiative,” Maeve said.
Christina He, Leader of Cocurricular at Mount St Benedict College, said the College was proud to support the Duke of Edinburgh Award because it helped to build students’ capacity to be independent, responsible, resilient and connected with their immediate and wider communities. About 160 students from Years 9-12 are currently taking part.
“As a Good Samaritan school, the voluntary service section of the Award aligns with our calling to be of service to others, particularly those from marginalised communities,” she said.
“This has been evident in Samantha’s decision to support the work of JRS by using her strengths and passion for cooking to provide meals for her local community.”