Thelma Wall was volunteering at the Sycamore Tree Coffee Shop when she saw a “young fellow” enter the adjoining Heidelberg-East Ivanhoe Uniting Church, which in those days had a front section open as a chapel.
Ms Wall decided to follow the teenager in and approach him.
“People enter a church for a reason,” she said.
She found the man clutching rosary beads and learnt that his brother was in the nearby Austin Hospital having been king-hit the night before.
The brother was not expected to survive.
Ms Wall introduced the teenager to the church’s minister and invited him back to the coffee shop.
He accepted and the minister and shop volunteers did what they could to provide both food and comfort to the young man as his brother passed away in hospital.
“I was always very glad we got to feed this young kid, just to have this kid with us. It made me very glad the coffee shop was there,” Ms Wall said.
She said many people had similar very personal stories about the coffee shop.
Heidelberg-East Ivanhoe Church is gearing up this August to celebrate 35 years since it set up the largely volunteer-run shop on Burgundy St, Heidelberg, as an outreach to the community.
“There is a lot of pride about the coffee shop,” Ms Wall said
“It has a clear connection that is recognised by the community as part of the church.”
“It has a warmth and friendliness, not a churchy place. We are welcoming to everybody, lots of people comment on it. They like the light and bright feeling of it.”
The premises previously served as a drop-in centre run by Heidelberg Church parishioner Elizabeth Lowson. Ms Lowson formulated the plan to turn it into a coffee shop, with the next door shopfront being rented out by the church to fund mission work.
The shop employs two staff, a manager and a barista, but all other staff are volunteers.
Coffee shop workers have come from the Heidelberg congregation as well as other churches and charitable and volunteer groups.
“It’s very well supported by people of other congregations,” she said.
Ms Wall said doing volunteer work had been confidence-building both for older and younger people, with the manager very adept at recognising people’s capabilities and ensuring service went smoothly.
Sometimes volunteers come from unexpected sources.
Ms Wall said a woman whose husband was undergoing surgery asked if she could wait in the shop and ended up doing dishes.
Often students and others come into the shop to get work experience and a number have gone on to be employed in the hospitality industry.
As tastes have changed so have the coffee shop’s offerings, from a relatively simple menu of sandwiches and pies to modern foodie staples such as pulled pork.
Ms Wall said that though the shop has been profitable, this money has never been kept by the church.
“Every year we have made donations,” she said
“We’ve always seen profits but it has always been to help the community.”
One source of giving back is by offering food vouchers for the shop to people at the nearby Austin and Mercy hospitals.
Ms Wall has been volunteering at the shop since it began and works four hours a week, mostly waitressing. Over the years she has got to know many of the shop’s regular patrons.
Ms Wall decided to become involved when she left nursing to raise her children.
“I wanted something where I could keep active, keep useful and, like nursing, keep interacting with people by always being on my feet,” she said. “This hit the button.”