Esther and a core group of volunteers helping out on the night.
Story and photographs by Belle Butler
Esther Sokoya’s passion for bringing people together is the driving force behind her latest community venture which has been enthusiastically supported by other locals, including businesses: a free food and winter clothes stall held every Friday night at the shops in Hazelbrook.
When Esther Sokoya moved to the Blue Mountains ten years ago, she noticed a distance between people. She had come from a small village in England that fostered a vibrant community in which close connections with neighbours were prioritised. Now she struggled to meet anyone: “What I realised was that the street was deserted. Nobody talked to each other. I had no reason to speak to my neighbours and everyone was far removed from each other.”
Why this matters
- Connected and supportive neighbourhoods reduce social isolation, increase resilience and help communities work together to respond to local challenges and disasters.
- Individuals and local businesses in Hazelbrook have demonstrated the power of collaboration and generosity to meet the needs of the community and to brighten up the long cold winter nights.
This community chasm suddenly closed when the 2013 bushfires brought people together. “When the fires happened, everyone was out on the street talking to each other, finding out what was going on,” said Esther. “They were all connecting. We found out one guy up the street had a fire hose. He came along and did an assessment on the back of the property. So, you see, all of a sudden everyone was out supporting one another. You felt so much more supported knowing that there were friendly people around you.”
A sign welcoming visitors to Esther’s Friday night food and clothing stall in Hazelbrook.
Esther saw this as a reaction to crisis: people coming together to bolster their resilience and establish a “sense of camaraderie.” But for her, this also reflected her own natural inclinations and core beliefs about humans: “People don’t want to live on islands, they don’t want to be in silos. They want to talk to people, they want to connect.”
This notion prompted Esther to instigate various community events, including a public puzzle she set up at the Hazelbrook shops to combat loneliness after the COVID 19 lockdowns: “People would drop by, solve a bit of the puzzle and stay for a chat.”
The same passion for bringing people together is the driving force behind her latest community venture: a free food and winter clothes stall held every Friday night at the shops in Hazelbrook.
Visitors at the stall settling in for an evening meal and a chat.
The idea struck when Esther spotted a post on Facebook asking if there were any charities accepting coats. She thought: “What about if I accept the coats myself and set up a little stand in Hazelbrook where people can get soup and sandwiches and coats on a Friday night.” So, she put her own post up on Facebook and immediately had a throng of people wanting to help.
The first stall took place in early May with a starting turnout of a handful of attendees, and it has rapidly grown from there. Friday nights at the Hazelbrook shops are now a bit of an institution, with 10 regular volunteers helping out, upwards of 20 visitors making use of the stall, and local shops like the Hazelbrook Kebab House and the tobacconist contributing food each week. “People come along, sit around and stay for the meal. Some people show up and say they don’t need anything, but then they’ll stay and chat for an hour. So, you see, you don’t need to ‘need’ anything to come along. Sometimes the ‘need’ is just to talk to someone.”
Visitors mingled as they browsed the goods.
Esther and the other volunteers gather supplies during the week and store items in their cars, garages and homes. They start unpacking their goods at 6:30pm and lately they have found that people arrive before they have had a chance to set up. They offer a meat and a vegetarian option in order to cater to different tastes, and they home-deliver groceries to people in need who cannot attend the stall in person. Esther donates any leftover items to the charity Mama Lana’s Community Foundation in Penrith.
The Friday food and clothing stall runs through winter, providing people with an opportunity to get out and connect even on the chilliest of nights. “I realised that in Europe you have all the festivities through winter, so people have the chance to come out and socialise,” said Esther. “There are the Christmas markets and lots of lights up. So, although the winter months are long, dark and cold, there’s still a heap of things happening. But here, it’s the middle of the year. So the winter months are just long, dark and cold and nothing is happening. That’s the other reason I wanted to make this happen.”
Baby booties amongst the winter clothing options.
Esther says that if she could be anything and had a magic wand to make it happen, she’d be a ‘fairy godmother’. I think many in the Hazelbrook community would say she has achieved this feat even without the magic wand: brightening the dark, warming the cold, and breaking up the long winter with generosity and connection.
Esther making cups of tea for visitors: “Come along,” she said. “You might find that you make a new friend.”
Esther’s stall wrapped up on the 11th August, but keep an eye out for her other community strengthening initiatives in the near future. She will advertise upcoming events in Hazelbrook Happenings, and often on Facebook community pages.
This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.