Barbara Dorward and Carol Coon know the importance of good food and good company. When they realised that some elderly widowers in the Airport West East Keilor Uniting Church congregation were struggling to prepare meals, they decided to run simple cooking classes in the church kitchen.
The two women had recently attended an education day at Port Phillip West Presbytery, which encouraged them to explore missional initiatives in their local community. As Barbara explained, she and Carol were able to identify a need and provide a service.
“The idea was expanded to the wider community and, after placing a small ad in the local paper, the first group of five men learnt the basics of nutritional, easy food preparation,” Barbara said.
“We started off simply. We did a soup and a stir-fry, golden toasties, a simple pastry pinwheel – tomato paste and bacon and cheese rolled up – and very basic sweets.
“Everybody had to chop and wash and the guys had to wash up all the dishes.
“We then sat down and ate together, which was fellowship for the men. At the end of the five weeks they had five recipes and suggestions for small things they could do without much effort.”
The cooking classes proved so popular that they decided to run a second group. A local woman saw a flyer in the local chemist and rang to ask if her two adult sons with disabilities could attend.
“It was lovely the way the older men in that group interacted with the boys,” Barbara said.
“It was only on a small scale but we felt it was very successful and at the end of the group we presented each of the men with a certificate as a bit of fun and to acknowledge they had made an effort.”
For many churches, finding opportunities to connect with the wider community can seem daunting. This is particularly true for congregations whose members might be older, or may feel they don’t have practical skills to share. But as Barbara and Carol prove, age is no barrier to innovation.
“Our youngest members would be in their late 60s, the majority are in their 70s or 80s and we have a few in their 90s,” Barbara said.
“Despite age our people are forward thinking. We are active and we are intent on growing. We have always been community minded; we do things and the community supports us.”
This ‘can-do’ approach was evident throughout last year, when the congregation had to worship at Gladstone Park as a new church building was developed. Rather than wait for the new church to open, activities continued at the local tennis club, football club and library.
When Barbara and Carol noticed a new coffee shop in a local strip shopping centre, they saw this as another opportunity.
“We knew we were going to have to find other places to do things,” Barbara said.
“I kept looking at this little shop. I approached them and said ‘how would you feel if we tried to organise a group to learn to crochet?’ We asked what would be an off day for them and the owner was very amenable to that.
“It was only a five-week course, we had eight or nine for that group and actually had a waiting list. So we ran a second one.”
A knitting course run by the women proved even more popular, and the women were encouraged to apply for a grant from presbytery. The money from the grant meant they could buy wool and subsidise coffees for the knitters as they made scarves, hats and jumpers to donate to the KOGO (knit one, give one) program.
“The ladies were thrilled with what we achieved. Some only knitted when they came, others knitted at home and got very enthusiastic about it,” Barbara said.
“All the ladies got something out of it. We had a few with serious health problems and they really looked forward to it, it was the highlight of their week.
“The only disadvantage with the little shop is because it is so small they are not required to provide toilet facilities – and we’re older ladies!”
The new Airport West East Keilor Uniting Church will officially open next month, and Barbara and Carol are already planning more courses courses for budding master chefs and craft groups, as well as a messy church.
“We look at things and think ‘we’ll have a go’,” Barbara said.
“If it doesn’t work, well OK. But if it does work, terrific. And I think that’s the attitude you’ve got to have – just have a go. And the other point I’d make is that age is no barrier!”