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Cooking up a storm for those in need

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Whether it’s one of her delicious sticky date puddings or putting together a hot potato salad, when Mary Dittmar OAM and her team are rostered on at Fred’s Van at Christie Downs, those attending know they are in for a treat.

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Unperturbed by the large number of hungry mouths to feed, the Hallett Cove parishioner is adept at scouring the weekly supermarket catalogues to get the best deals and then planning the nutritious meals that are served each Wednesday and Sunday evening (in ‘normal’ times).

“We only have an hour to do the cooking so it’s challenging to find something that is nutritious and within the budget,” she told The Southern Cross.

“I did a gourmet cooking course for a year when the children were little… and I come from a big family where we used to just throw another spud in the pot, so I don’t find cooking that hard.”

Mary’s pragmatic approach and compassion for those in need were recognised recently when she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to the community.

“When I first opened the letter (confirming the award) the first thing I thought was, I wish Mum and Dad were here because it’s their legacy that’s given me the opportunity to do what I do.

“However, one thing about this award I don’t like is that I prefer to be in the background. I always feel you are doing God’s work quietly and not looking for recognition, and it doesn’t sit well with me being in the spotlight.”

Mary (pictured) said while her late parents, Vin and Mary O’Neil, did not have a lot of money, their six children were always fed, there was always laughter in the household and there was always Mass on Sundays!

“At one stage Dad didn’t have a car and we used to walk from Marino where we lived about six kilometres to Mass at Brighton,” she recalled.

“We used to say the rosary every night as kids, and it would go really well until the cat came in and started playing with the beads.”

Her Catholic faith has been a guiding light over the years. She attended St Teresa’s School at Brighton and then Marymount College, and married Bob Dittmar at St Joseph’s Church, Brighton in 1972. They attended Brighton parish before moving to the closer and newly-opened St Martin de Porres Church at Hallett Cove, and have both served as Eucharistic Ministers and on the welcoming team.

It was when John Lamprell from Vinnies gave a talk at the parish about Fred’s Van that Mary saw another way she could live her faith.

At the time she was caring for her ailing parents and her brother, who later passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her parents had always instilled in their children the importance of helping those in need and being involved with Fred’s Van resonated with Mary’s values.

Joining in 2002, Mary recalled how in the early years they would cook “mainly sausages in bread and make sandwiches” which were distributed from the van with a hot cup of tea or coffee.

About six years ago Vinnies secured facilities at the Wardli Youth Centre at Christie Downs and began offering two sit-down meals each week.

“Now I organise all the menus and look after the eight teams that cook there, which is about 55 to 60 volunteers. I make sure there is enough food to cook and three other volunteers help me do the shopping.”

Mary said over the years her job had been made easier by the great support she received from other volunteers and local businesses. For example, Splashout Art Studio had organised fundraisers for the purchase of a new freezer, refrigerator and the “piece de resistance”, a 75-cup commercial rice cooker.

“We do cook a lot of pasta and rice,” she laughed.

Besides working with a great team that “enjoys a lot of laughs” Mary said volunteering with Fred’s Van enabled her to support and lend a listening ear to those in need in the community.

“I really enjoy feeding the people and saying hello. I don’t know their names – I’m dreadful with names – but it’s interesting to sit with them and hear their stories. It’s not just about the food but it’s also the social aspect that’s important for the people we serve.”

With 18 years of service and now an OAM under her belt, Mary has no immediate plans to retire but is hoping more young people will consider volunteering their time.

“A lot of the people we see are older and are struggling…and I think the need for Vinnies services and Fred’s Van will be even greater once the service resumes to normal.”

Vinnies is currently running a COVID-19 Winter Appeal. Donations can be made at www.vinnies.org.au/donate or by calling 13 18 12.

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