TV chef Liz Egan finds her volunteer work at Kingston Gardens Salvation Army an enriching experience.
Liz Egan admits with a smile that she is often recognised by people coming into The Salvation Army centre where she volunteers every Friday.
The well-known Melbourne chef, a familiar face to fans of Channel 7’s reality television cooking show My Kitchen Rules, has been part of the team at Kingston Gardens Salvos for the past
two and a half years.
“People do recognise me from being a judge on MKR, and I’m happy to say, they’re usually thrilled,” Liz laughs. “It’s often a good ice-breaker.”
Liz is part of the Kingston Gardens Salvation Army emergency relief team, which provides practical help to people in crisis situations. It’s a scenario that happens in Salvo centres around the nation, working alongside others where there is hardship or injustice to transform one life at a time with the love of Jesus.
In the last financial year, The Salvation Army’s annual report noted that 164,679 emergency relief support and assessment sessions were held, with 38,741 people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness receiving support and 5,941 people experiencing family violence receiving care. Altogether, Salvation Army programs provided 1,148,175 sessions of care to 189,795 people. More than 75% of the Salvos’ workforce is made up of dedicated volunteers making a difference in the lives of many thousands of Australians.
Volunteering has always been on Liz’s to-do list, something she wanted to be part of when she had “a bit of spare time”. That time came sooner than the busy executive chef expected. In 2011 she had an accident while body surfing with her daughters.
“I smashed one side of my body and that was the end of my professional cooking career,” she says.
Several operations and a long recuperation followed. Liz recalls filming MKR not long after her first operation. “I had a massive scar on my shoulder and was wearing a sling,” she says. “But the MKR team was fabulous. [Fellow judge and chef] Guy Grossi cut up my food off camera, I put my hair over the scar on my shoulder and took off my sling while we were filming.”
She describes the accident as “devastating and life-changing”.
“I sold the restaurant. For someone who is independent, it was very hard having to rely on other people to do even everyday tasks,” she says.
“You never know what life’s going to throw at you; I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have a choice in how my life changed. But I’m lucky because I had the right support network, and you learn about yourself and develop as a person through circumstances like this. It opened up different things for me.”
One of those is her volunteer work at Kingston Gardens Salvos. Liz found the listing on the Seek Volunteer website, applied, was interviewed (“My first interview for 25 years!” she adds), and now works with Salvo officer (minister) Steph Glover and the team to provide crisis assistance.
“Clients come in when they have an emergency. That could be through domestic violence, someone losing their housing and sometimes we have asylum seekers. We help wherever we can,” Liz says.
“We greet them, get their file or set up one, and always offer them a tea or coffee and a biscuit. Sometimes they want to talk to someone who is interested in listening to them, as much as they want a supermarket voucher or food. Sometimes people don’t want to chat, and that’s fine, too.”
The foyer is set up with a small pop-up supermarket consisting of a bank of shelves stocked with donated groceries.
“Sometimes we have fresh vegies and fruit, which are lovely, and frozen food. When we have people in need, it’s fabulous when we can give them an abundance of choice, but even though we don’t always have vegies donated, there’s always something for them,” Liz says.
“We can arrange to get medications for people. This is really important, especially for those with mental health issues, because often they have to choose between paying for medications or buying food. I think it’s cruel to be in that position.”
Liz says working at the Salvos has given her insight into the hardship and disadvantage experienced by many in the community.
“It opened my eyes to injustice; I have so much more empathy and understanding for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised,” she says.
“Even three or four years ago, I had a complete lack of understanding about the Newstart allowance and what people are trying to achieve on so little money. It’s ridiculous. I’ve been shocked at the level of disadvantage in the community, and I think the general public would be too, if they knew more about it.”
Sometimes, she says, it’s overwhelming to listen to someone’s story and the hardships they have to deal with.
“The first few months I struggled with that. After working here on Friday, we’d go out for dinner and I would feel this immense sense of guilt about my life, but as a team we always debrief, which is really helpful,” Liz says.
“I want to put back into the community and help people who haven’t had the opportunities and the luck I have had. If you volunteer, you will be challenged. But you will also be greatly enriched and receive so much out of giving to others.”
If you need emergency help, go to www.salvationarmy.org.au/need-help
To volunteer with the Salvation Army, go to www.salvationarmy.org.au/get-involved