In 2006, Sarah Susak, now new legal counsel for Coca-Cola South Pacific, was a young lawyer working in private practice. Most mornings on her way to work, she’d place a hamburger meal at the feet of a homeless man she passed. She thought she was doing the right thing; the homeless man thought otherwise.

“After months of doing this, one day he set it on fire and threw it at me,” Sarah said. “I was perplexed. But he looked at me and said, ‘Did you ever stop to think that I might want a salad sandwich? It was a light-bulb moment for me as I realised that I hadn’t given thought to who he was or what he may have enjoyed.”

The experience made Sarah determined to find out more about people who live on the street. Any preconceptions she had were soon challenged. “I met an entire subculture of beautiful people who I had previously walked around in judgment, thinking that they were lazy or not doing enough to improve their life,” she admitted.

“But through really meeting them I realised that they started where we all started: as a human being with the same breath and human potential. Then something happened in their lives that shouldn’t have.”

Something happened to Sarah too: her perspective shifted, and she began volunteering at iconic Kings Cross homelessness support centre, the Wayside Chapel

She also volunteered during unpopular overnight shifts each week at a nearby shelter in Darlinghurst. “I would sleep at the shelter with the homeless visitors and go to work from there. You’d sleep alongside of the homeless and share the same meals. It’s like nothing you can ever imagine,” she recalled. “And then you realise that many do this every night of the week and often without a shelter at all.”

Sarah’s next career move saw her expatriated to Paris. But her experiences at the Wayside Chapel and the people she had met stayed with her, and in 2012, she returned home and took a position as Partnerships Manager with the charity. “I considered it a unique opportunity to contribute more fully to my community,” she said. “While the experience was one I will never forget, I am mindful that there are people who make this kind of important contribution every day.”

From breakfast to bigger things

Senior Youth Worker Kim Bailey was surrounded by breakfast cereals on a recent Tuesday morning when Sarah joined him to help serve at the Wayside Chapel’s regular breakfast, with a team of volunteers. As the new legal counsel for Coca-Cola South Pacific, Sarah is already introducing her colleagues to the Cross.

“We get a lot of young people, both locals and visitors to the big city, who’ve lost contact with their support networks – so we give them a place to be, and try to reconnect them with their parents or school or support services,” Kim explained. “We’re creating a safe place here.”

As shy teenagers tucked into breakfast, Kim explained the Wayside Chapel’s philosophy: love over hate. “We’re good listeners,” he said. “Part of being a teenager is feeling angry and frustrated, and we acknowledge it’s OK to have complex feelings. But as we’re building trust and the self-esteem in these kids, we’re asking what they want their lives to look like. We want to see them blossom.”

According to Kim, most of Wayside’s young visitors want the same thing: not to live on the streets. Like anyone, they want the freedom to make choices for the future. “But unless you know what those choices are, how do you know which one fits you?” Kim said. “So we open up these conversations and let them tell us when they’re ready.”

Riding the waves of life

During her time with The Wayside Chapel, Sarah learned that what often distinguishes the homeless from those with homes is the absence of a strong community to be a part of. “Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the social support networks most of us have to ride the difficult waves of life,” she explained. “If I have a bad day, I can talk to my mum or my friend. But many of Wayside’s visitors are running away from dangerous or unsafe situations and they don’t have the necessary support.”

Sarah believes that this is exactly where we should step in. “The Wayside becomes the support network for the socially isolated or homeless, a safe place to belong and connect,” she said. “But it’s not just the work of the Wayside Chapel to create a community with no “us and them”. It’s the work of all of us. We all need to a part of this community support network for any human being who needs it.”