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"We want to remove the stigma", says founder of new soup kitchens

Oliver Williams wanted to ‘give back’ after receiving help as a teenager in London – now he has opened two Twist soup kitchens in Ireland.

Image: Gisela Francisco via flickr/Creative Commons

A MAN WHO benefited from a soup kitchen as a teenager in London has been inspired to set up his own soup kitchens in Ireland.

Oliver Williams spoke to TheJournal.ie yesterday as he officially opened the Twist soup kitchen in Athlone. It is his second soup kitchen, the first being based in Galway.

A hot meal and good advice

“It is going very well,” Williams said of the opening, adding that a lot of local suppliers had been in touch to donate food. This latest soup kitchen comes five months after the Galway Twist opened on the docks in that city, where it feeds about 80 people a day.

It transpires that Williams set up this soup kitchen after being on the receiving end of help from one in another country.

Many years ago when I was 15 I left home from rural Ireland and found myself on the streets of London. I had no place to stay and I found a place called Centrepoint in Soho.”

There, he was provided with “a hot meal, a bed and good advice.” It put him on a good track when he could have gone down a bad one at such a young age, he said.

Williams, who said he has “always been a giver”, never forgot the gift that this centre gave to him when he was a young man at a time of need. Having returned to Ireland around 15 years ago, he was here to experience the recession when the Celtic Tiger days came to an end in his home country.

A qualified pilot, he operated a helicopter at the height of the boom, but his job was a victim of the economic collapse. Williams became aware that “people were not cutting it with money” in Ireland, especially single mothers with children; that surveys showed homes were short of food; and that children were going to school hungry.

Instead of sitting back and waiting for things to right themselves, he was inspired by his own experience to start a soup kitchen of his own – and Twist was opened in Galway in June. “It takes a lot of work,” he admitted.

We rely completely on the kindness of local people, especially local businesses.

The reaction to the initiative has been “fantastic”, with people showing their support in different ways, such as volunteering with the kitchen, or donating food. “It’s overwhelming,” said Williams.

Those who visit Twist are from many different backgrounds, but compared to the 1980s Williams said he sees a lot of what he calls the “new poor”, such as people who have lost their jobs and can’t get social welfare, or single parents. He sees people who visit Twist for their only food of the day.

Stigma

Williams knows there can be stigma around soup kitchens, so his aim is to make Twist locations as open, friendly and easy to visit as possible. “We don’t ask questions. Everybody is welcome. The obvious question you might ask is do people take advantage? The answer is they don’t.”

There is always going to be a stigma attached to soup kitchens. We are open to everybody. It’s a nice place to come to have a cup of tea and see a friendly face.

He has set up both Twists so that they look like a normal restaurant – but the difference is that when people come in, they’re not asked what they’re want. They’re given a cup of tea and given that day’s food, in an effort to avoid the stigma associated with asking for the service, said Williams.

“We don’t want people to feel they shouldn’t be here, or embarrassed. We want to remove that stigma.

Twist in Athlone will open on Christmas day, holding a three-course meal for those who otherwise would not enjoy the festive dinner so many others are lucky to have.

Twist relies entirely on donations, and Williams said those who are interested can donate by visiting the website www.twistsoupkitchen.com or going directly to their online iDonate page.

The Athlone branch has its own charity shop, to which people are encouraged to bring items. All funds raised will go to the soup kitchens. Williams said he has plans to extend the service to other towns around Ireland in the future, feeding the hungry in even more locations. “I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I meet some fantastic people.”

Read: Cork Penny Dinners appeals for food donations>

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