Saturday 18 November 2017

'Parents can't even look us in the eye' - Charity sees rise in demand for back-to-school food hampers

Cathriona Twomey of the Cork Penny Dinners.
Cathriona Twomey of the Cork Penny Dinners.
Just some of the Penny Dinner volunteers. Caitriona Twomey is pictured third from the right in the back. (Photo: Facebook/Cork Penny Dinners)

Sasha Brady

Cork's Penny Dinners has seen an increase in the number of families reaching out for food hampers as cash-strapped parents struggle with back-to-school costs.

The Cork-based charity service said this year has seen an increase in the number of families requesting food hampers.

Penny Dinners' coordinator, Caitriona Twomey told Independent.ie that the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September are especially busy for them.

"We give out hampers every week but there's been in increase in the number we're giving away as the kids go back to school," she said.

"Parents are cash-strapped, there are so many costs involved. Especially if you have more than one child. School books, fees, printing costs, extra-curricular activities, it all adds up.

"People really dread September and sure the costs build up and before you know it it's Christmas. There's no relief for them."

Ms Twomey said it's difficult to see parents struggle to do so much for their children and have very little left over for essentials such as food.

"When you see someone do so much for their children but then not being able to have money for food, it must be tearing them inside out. You can see they're hurt.

Just some of the Penny Dinner volunteers. Caitriona Twomey is pictured third from the right in the back. (Photo: Facebook/Cork Penny Dinners)
Just some of the Penny Dinner volunteers. Caitriona Twomey is pictured third from the right in the back. (Photo: Facebook/Cork Penny Dinners)

"Some of these parents can't even look you in the eye. You can see by their faces that it's killing them."

The soup kitchen try to make it as easy as possible for families to avail of their services.

"They don't have to fill in any forms. They just come in and we give them what they need so it's over and done without any fuss. We want to preserve their dignity as best we can," Ms Twomey explained.

The hampers include the basics like bread, milk, sugar, tea, eggs, tins of beans, white and black pudding, sausages, porridge and cereal. But they often throw in a few essential extras.

"Sometimes we'll even hand out essentials like toilet roll. Women will often come in and ask for [sanitary products]. I mean, how below the belt is that? But it's not how low they can go, it's how low they've been forced to go.

"They don't know where else to turn to. We want them to know that it's okay to come to us.

"We always say, 'Ah sure, it's grand. You're doing the right thing by coming to see us.' Just to make them feel okay. Because it is okay. It's not right that they've been forced into these predicaments but it is okay to get help and that's what we're here for."

Ms Twomey said she has seen first-hand the difference the charity's services have made to people's lives.

"We had a mother with two young children coming in for food. She was distraught when she first came in but I told her, 'You're doing a brave thing' and eight months later she got back on her feet and got a new job. She was delighted at the end of it but she said she couldn't have done it without having the food for her children and food for herself," she said.

Penny Dinners even work with other charity agents who come to them for free food for people they know in neeed.

"We even have people coming in from other charity services getting food for children they know are going to school hungry. Other agencies working outside their remit because they care.

"I look at all our volunteers in here too and I am in awe of them. You're prepared for all the sad things you're going to see each day but when you see how well they cope... There's a practical compassion to everything they do."

Ms Twomey said she wished the Government would "wake up" to the "real and basic" issues Irish people are experiencing every day because of the rising cost of living.

"People think there's a great mystery to all this but there isn't," she said.

"We're here and we say 'come in' and if we don't have what you're looking for we'll try to get it. That's all."

Caitriona Twomey will be singing with the High Hopes Choir outside Brown Thomas on September 23.

The choir is hoping to raise money for mental health and homeless charities.

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