Conversations Across Cultures

It was a bleak, winter night in Parramatta but we had been having fun with several friends who had warmed themselves with a BBQ dinner, hot showers, freshly cleaned clothes and lively conversation. We had started to get ready to pack up, waiting for one load of clothes to finish its drying cycle. A few friends remained chatting with volunteers but there was one man seated alone on an orange chair. He was quite an old man, well into his seventies I think, and he looked lonely sitting there by himself. I decided to sit down beside him and see if he wanted to chat.

It was pretty obvious from the outset that he spoke little English. He pointed to the van and I understood that his washing was still in the dryer, which was obviously why he was sitting, waiting. Through a combination of a few English words, hand signals and a trusty iphone, I soon learned that he had come from Syria and was staying with relatives while trying to figure out where to live.

He animatedly talked about the dangers of living in Syria and the everyday terror of living in a war torn country. He showed me photos of several of his children who were dotted all over the world. His eyes filled with pride over the beauty of one of his daughters, and the fear was etched on his face when he showed me one of his sons, who must have still been in Syria. It was an extraordinary conversation, made so much more special somehow by the absence of a shared language.

After about 15 minutes, a volunteer who had been helping with tidying up around the van came up and spoke to me and asked if the man spoke Arabic. Of course he did! I’d been struggling to communicate for 15 minutes and here was a young woman who could speak the man’s language!!! I was then able to ask so many more of my questions and find out so much more about his life. He asked us about Orange Sky and what we all did. We all chatted and laughed about nothing and everything.

Another of the volunteers removed the man’s belongings from the dryer and put the still warm clothes carefully into the man’s shopping jeep. The man spoke softly to the volunteer who spoke his language and said, “you people provide a beautiful service”. He pushed his little jeep forward and shook hands with each of us, then waved goodbye as he walked away. It struck me that this interaction typifies the magic of Orange Sky, the basic but respectful act of washing someone’s clothes, engaging with them in simple yet powerful connections, and parting company from them knowing that they, and you, are enriched by the experience.

Help to positively connect some of the 116,000 Australians doing it tough.

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First impressions of an Orange Sky shift

Picture this; it’s a cold night in May, it’s raining, and you’ve just finished your first volunteer shift with Orange Sky at 9.30pm. You’re happy to be in a nice, warm car with the heater on and you’re already thinking about that cup of tea you’re going to have before hopping into bed tonight. But before you can do that, you bring yourself back to the friends you’ve just said goodbye to on shift and the 116,000 people who tonight, don’t have a place to call home.

A few months ago, we partnered with Harcourts in Brisbane and asked a few of their staff to do something out of their daily routine. We asked if they could give up a few hours of their day – before or after work – to go on an Orange Sky shift, sit down on our orange chairs and chat with some of people whom we have the privilege of calling our friends. It’s what 1300 of our volunteers around Australia do each and every week, and on that cold and rainy night in May, they got to experience first-hand the tough realities for our friends on the street. But more than that, they got to experience the power of connection and conversation.

Until you have been to an Orange Sky shift, it is hard to fully understand the importance of our six orange chairs. It’s where barriers are broken down, stereotypes are challenged, relationships are built and connections are formed. When you’re sitting on those orange chairs, you’re not thinking about the hundreds of emails that you have sitting on in your inbox or the life admin that you have to do on the weekend. You’re focused on the unique individual sitting on the chair across from you and what is happening in their world. At Orange Sky, we’ve seen how a positive connection can transform a person’s life, and that’s why we’re so passionate about helping to connect people all around Australia – and soon the world.

Before volunteering with Orange Sky, many people tell us they’ve never had any connection with a person experiencing homelessness. Or at least they think they haven’t.

In Australia, there are one in 200 people who are doing it tough. Only five percent of those who are classed as ‘homeless’ by the Australian Bureau of Statistics are actually sleeping rough. The other 95 percent are staying in shelters, boarding houses, temporary accommodation or severely crowded homes.

Most of us don’t know what it’s like to spend a night on the street, but nearly all of us could relate to being cash strapped at one point or another. An unexpected bill, a medical emergency or maybe the breakdown of a relationship – it doesn’t take long to be in a situation where money is tight.

Each week, at 26 locations around Australia, we see new volunteers jump out on our vans for the very first time. People get involved with Orange Sky for all sorts of reasons – they might have time on their hands, be looking to give back to the community, or in some cases, are after some sort of human connection themselves. Just like our friends, our volunteers are interesting, complex and extraordinary people who give up their time each week to help make someone else’s life just that little bit better.

Caitlin was one of the staff from Harcourts who came along to shift and met some of our friends. She told us she was overwhelmed by positivity and resilience of a friend she met out on shift that night.

“He’s had such bad luck and he’s such a nice guy… I couldn’t believe all the stuff he did. He lost his housing because he was paying rent to someone who wasn’t paying the real estate. He’s built his own little house and coffee table and created all this stuff from kerbside pick-up. He’s a really good guy.”

You can check out the full video below to see what happened when Harcourts staff met our friends.

Interested in joining the team?
Check out our volunteer page  to find out more and register to get involved.

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How to Build a Mobile Laundry

Tell us a little about yourself
Hi, I am Joel and I am 23 years old. I am a Mechanical Trades Assistant at Orange Sky Australia and I specialise in anything carpentry or technical drawing related.

What are you building at the moment?
We are in the final stages of building a laundry van that is headed to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Palm Island in North Queensland. We are using a Mercedes Sprinter like we use for our hybrid vehicles, but this time we started with a cab chassis [a truck body]. The canopy was custom made and built off site.

What was it like planning the build?
We got the news that we had to build a vehicle for Palm Island and white-boarded the pros and cons against our current fleet. We then looked at our hybrid vans and laundry vans; how they function, how they can be maintained and how future-proof they are. A few options became clear when discussing the Lockhart River truck around the mechanical quality of the vehicle. It has not always been the easiest of vehicles to maintain so we made the decision to purchase a new vehicle. When everything was drawn up on the whiteboard, we landed on the purchase of a box body cab chassis; the first of its kind for Orange Sky.

What were some of the most important parts of the build process?
A lot of planning goes into this type of build but all of the systems already in our other vehicles stay the same. We have a great base to start with but there is a lot of research and design that needs to happen before the build starts and throughout the whole process. I did a lot of research on the spacial layout of the van and how different components fit inside. Damien specialises in the weight restriction, Nic M looks after the systems, Nic P the mechanical and Steven the electrical. We map all the dependencies on on a little pie chart and get to work.

How do you work together?
Usually we will have a big catch up at the start of the build and try to forecast what the week looks like. We will then try to estimate any times that the van is going to be inaccessible for example, when it goes to get exhaust done or if we have an electrician in to work on something specific. In terms of the actual HQ staff, it is pretty organic as a result of us building a lot of vans together.

What was the hardest thing about the build?
The weight restrictions. It’s a tight payload so we don’t have a lot of weight to work with before it has to be converted to a light ridged license. This would restrict the number of volunteers that could drive and gets in the way of our flexible volunteer models. Other restrictions are space and format for the onboard water.

Did you take a lot of ideas from other Orange Sky vehicles?
A lot of the build followed a similar format to other Orange Sky vans. All of the different workable sections of the van like the burner that heats the water, the pumps the water around and washer manifolds are still in their separate components. It was potentially easier to lay out all of the parts because it does not have the restrictions of the other vans, it is a box shape and a lot easier to square off and design flexibly.

Why do you think it is important for Orange Sky to offer laundry service in Palm Island?
I didn’t realise the need for a vehicle in remote communities in Australia until I had the opportunity to visit Orange Sky’s laundry truck in Lockhart River. I now know that it is not just individuals doing it tough, it is entire communities that don’t have access to these facilities. By going there and seeing the impact that out first remote vehicle is having in Lockhart River, it is a no brainer that we need to be in as many places as possible. Palm Island is just one of the many remote communities across Australia where we can have a massive impact.

What is next for the build team at Orange Sky ?
Next is working out all of our safe working instructions for the Palm Island vehicle. Before vans launch, we need to have a set of work instructions that someone in Palm Island can use, i.e. easy to understand guides for someone in Palm Island to change the detergent drum or clean a washing machine.

At this stage we also take a lot of documentation for ourselves by troubleshooting and diagnosing issues over the phone. I will do a lot of drawing and documenting so we can leverage the success of the build and replicate for further vehicles. We can then have a lot of the parts pre-fabricated before the next chassis arrives.

What makes Orange Sky special as part of the build team?
The freedom to make suggestions. I have never been in a workplace where I have felt like a senior member of a team as a 23 years old. You don’t feel like you are limited by your experience or your age. That is the coolest thing for me.

Interested in joining the team?
Check out our volunteer page  to find out more and register to get involved.

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Start Your Conversation

Eight days, nine cities, twelve Orange Sky shifts and 20,000kms.

Our east coast tour saw us hit the road in a small orange car – with a large screen television in the back – to show off our new short film and yarn with friends, volunteers and the community about its possible impact. We traversed the east coast from Brisbane to Melbourne and pulled up at as many Orange Sky shifts as we could. 

The amazing Light and Shade team are the masterminds behind the feature. They donated their time and resources to produce the film, meaning the impact presented could go directly to our friends without overheads. The aim of the short film was to show three different stories in support of a better understanding of the 116,000 people experiencing homelessness across Australia. We knew we were onto something special, but until we could present the final product to our friends, we weren’t 100 percent sure we had it right. 

From our friend Keith in Melbourne to volunteer Hugh in Sydney, everyone provided thoughtful and consistent feedback about the importance of community understanding around the diversity of people doing it tough in Australia. There was also a lot of discussion about the power of connection by sitting on our six orange chairs and having genuine conversations.

The feature video will now be playing on SBS and across Foxtel channels as community service announcements for at least the next year. We hope that the people watching will spend some time chatting with their family and friends about their own ideas around homelessness and ways that we can all play a part in supporting everyone to feel positively connected.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of the people we met on our tour. One of those people is Luke, a friend in Sydney who is getting his life back on track after some tough times. He believes there could be better understanding and support for people in need, and is now doing his part to give back and lend a hand. Watch our conversation with Luke here.
You can also check out what we got up to during our week on the road…

Interested in joining the team?
Check out our volunteer page  to find out more and register to get involved.

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