Whether you have lived in Xi’an for six months or six years, most people will have either volunteered at or heard of The Yellow River Soup Kitchen. This year the soup kitchen is celebrating its ten year anniversary. Within that period the soup kitchen has:
- Served over 145,000 meals to the homeless and needy.
- Provided Aid to over 55,000 people across China.
- Helped over 90 homeless people find work.
- Each winter they distribute quilts, coats and long johns to the homeless as they sleep.
- Give medical aid to the homeless and needy.
- Distributed over 110 wheelchairs to the disabled and homeless.
The soup kitchen has become an important part of Xi’an life for many living here, not just the homeless using the service, but also the volunteers who come to help out.
One could describe the creation of the soup kitchen as an activity that snowballed, as opposed to an organisation which was planned out and carefully executed, a growth which Tony Day often refers to as “organic”.
It all began in late 2005 when Tony, who had been on the road for two years volunteering and visiting spiritual retreats, was encouraged to visit Xi’an while on his way to India. While walking the streets one Thursday in December, Tony was approached by an old woman, a beggar, who was rather persistent in her quest for money. Not the type to just give money to the homeless, he refused her request yet she still followed him for several minutes. That evening during meditation, Tony reflected on the brief encounter and although he was not willing to give her money, he decided to track her down the next day and buy her lunch. Tony did manage to track the woman down and although she refused his offer of lunch, the seed had already been planted. By the end of Friday it was all organized.On Sunday December the 18th,the soup kitchen began serving food to the homeless outside the Catholic Church on Wu Xing Jie (五星街) by permission of Father Chen.
However, things were not always plain sailing from the start. As one can imagine, a foreigner walking around giving food to the homeless created a lot of mixed reactions. “There was at the time, and still is to some extent, a belief that many homeless on the street are not genuine and don’t need help. At times there was verbal abuse from passersby on the street, yet there were also those that were interested in the charitable work and asked how they could help out,” Tony explains. He attributes most of the adverse reactions he received to a lack of understanding, “A soup kitchen in the west would be considered no big deal, but here it is no small thing.”
Over the past ten years however, there has been a huge change in the way members of the public view the soup kitchen’s work. Tony has witnessed this change first hand. “We did get a lot of verbal abuse (from members of the public), but we haven’t had that for years and years. The changes which have taken place over those ten years are phenomenal…there’s much more of an understanding.”
After running the soup kitchen for a decade, Tony knows all too well that rehabilitation can be a slow process. Even in some rare cases, rehabilitation is simply not possible. Many homeless users often go to the soup kitchen for a number of months, sometimes even years, before they begin to make progress and get themselves back on their feet, whereas some clients Tony says are always going to rely on the service. “There are those out there who simply cannot provide for themselves either due to physical disability, mental illness, old age or for whatever reason…however there is a huge amount of others who are able to find jobs themselves because their self-esteem has changed: they’re clean, they’re fed, people have began treating them as though they are human for the first time in a long time. Then after a while some of them just find their own jobs and get back in the system themselves.”
One of the questions Tony is asked most is whether the soup kitchen’s efforts are more proactive or reactive, or put another way: “To give a fish or to teach how to fish?” Tony acknowledges this as a valid argument, yet he also points out that the soup kitchen is limited towards what help they can provide. “There are many organizations out there who are teaching people how to fish and that is great work…we are only a little organization… if we have the resources to do it we will.”
Serving baozi and soup three times a week is only a tiny component of what the soup kitchen does, yet it is this image that comes to mind when the soup kitchen is spoken of. The soup kitchen itself carries out an average of 190 activities a year, many of which could be perceived as proactive, such as repairing village schools, english summer schools in mountain villages, helping people find work and reuniting homeless children with their families.
Although Tony was the founder and the face of the soup kitchen, he is adamant in stating that the operation is a result of the joint efforts of each individual gets involved. In no way could the soup kitchen be what it is today had it not been for the collective energy of everyone who has volunteered over the past ten years. From the management to those serving the food and even down to the restaurant manager who provides the baozi at a non-profitable discount, each individual plays a vital role in the running and organization of the charity.
The next few years are looking bright for the soup kitchen as many new projects are coming to fruition. At present, the soup kitchen is collaborating on several projects. One of these is with a local hospital that is giving their time and resources to carry out surgery on the homeless and needy with the surgery itself being funded via the Beijing-based charity, Roundabout.
The first Roundabout funded procedure happened in September, when a person in need received varicose vein surgery. The surgery was a success,and the local Catholic Church also got involved by offering a room for two weeks where the person could recover.
Another large scale project is now well under way after a team of American doctors flew out in late September to provide training in the fitting and use of prosthetic limbs to ten homeless and poor families. Through this project, not only will the homeless and needy benefit, but the local community will also reap rewards, as the hospital will extend the treatment and fitting of prosthetic limbs to members of the general public.What’s more is that the prosthetics will be continued to be supplied from America for free. The American team, via the Shaanxi Charity Organisation, has also provided free first aid training to 20 people who are involved with other groups.
From its humble beginnings serving steamed buns outdoors, to its collaboration with international organisations, the soup kitchen has definitely become an important part of Xi’an life for both the service users and volunteers.
The soup kitchen serves meals three times a week on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 18:30 till 20:00. Volunteers are always welcome.
The soup kitchen is a British registered NGO doing work here in Xi’an and across China. For more information on the charity visit their web-site: www.yellowrivercharity.com.
Check out Tony’s interview on YouTube, search: Tony Day China’s first ever soup kitchen.