About two years ago, Elise Takashima moved to the dynamic, diverse suburb of Newtown in Sydney’s Inner West realm. Even if you have never visited, you probably know of Newtown – Sydney’s inner-city capital of alternate lifestyles, cashed-up hipsters, grotty chic and Thai restaurants. So many Thai restaurants.
The young woman, who is originally from Los Angeles, California, instantly volunteered to help the homeless in Newtown. Along with eye-watering house prices, the funky Sydney suburb has significant swathes of people in and around it who are doing it tough. Really, really tough.
But Elise got to be part of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre’s Outreach program – trained volunteers head out to the streets, to connect purposefully with those sleeping rough – for only a few months before COVID-19 happened. The widespread restrictions caused Elise and the Outreach program to pause.
However, a pandemic was not going to stop Elise’s passion for serving others. A passion which was publicly acknowledged this month when Elise was named one of the Inner West Council’s Young Volunteers of the Year.
“Why I do what I do is because of the law of love and being called to love our neighbour as ourself,” says Elise, who has been in Australia for five years with Christian training and leadership organisation YWAM (Youth With a Mission). Elise is a YWAM staff member enabled to do the volunteer work she does, so she can “be developed in a space where I can put my faith into practical action”.
“For me, what I saw the Neighbourhood Centre doing – and the opportunity they provide for me to volunteer there – it simply aligns with what I believe we are called to as Christians.”
Taking care of neighbours, for Elise, means doing just that. Taking care of those you are surrounded by. So when the pandemic proved a barrier to the on-the-streets volunteering she loved doing in Newtown, Elise was proactive about getting involved with NNC in other ways.
For more than a year, Elise has met all kinds of people each week – with all sorts of needs – as a volunteer at the NNC’s Information and Referral Service. “It’s really broad but the job is, basically, welcoming and assisting anyone who wanders into the Centre – for any reason. It could be something as simple as where can someone find a Justice of the Peace, or a where can they get a meal, or assistance with vouchers for groceries. There also can be more complex things, like people who are experiencing domestic violence, or have just been released from incarceration, or who are recently homeless.”
“They often come with a specific need … but some times they wander in and they don’t know what exactly they need. But we try to walk as far as we can with them, with what we can provide. If not, we hopefully hand them to someone who can help them as well, better than we can.”
Being named one of four Inner West Young Volunteers of the Year, Elise was commended for being “an extremely diligent, dedicated and motivated individual and due to her empathetic, inquisitive and helpful disposition, has proven to be a natural in the role of supporting marginalised people experiencing street homelessness and other social disadvantage”.
As that big wrap indicates, others know Elise is great at what she does for her community. When Eternity asks her why she thinks she is so well suited to a local role that can be highly demanding or complicated, Elise continues to credit the love and compassion she has received from God as her fuel for service.
“I have an awareness of the difficulties that people face,” says Elise modestly. “It sounds really lovely to want to take care of neighbours and help those who are having a hard time, but to come face to face with the struggle that some people are actually facing is pretty confronting.
“What happened within me, when I moved to Newtown – and maybe it’s from knowing God’s heart and love for humanity – but I was walking around the streets and I was seeing a lot of need. I just couldn’t ignore what I saw any longer. And if that meant something as simple as being someone at the front counter to answer some questions, then I felt like I wanted to put myself in the position to offer what I could.”
Elise enjoys meeting real people who want to share their life with her, even the hard stuff. “There’s always a choice to be overwhelmed by it but I’m a firm believer in being motivated by compassion. I have experienced a lot of God’s compassion and I feel like that allows me to be in spaces where, even if I don’t have the answer, I can offer any assistance I can give.”
Elise has gone through “levels of pain and disappointment that I didn’t realise life would hold” but God has been there for her. She wants to provide such care to others without, as Elise emphasises, suggesting she is some sort of saviour.
Initially, Elise only came for six months to Australia but it “captured a piece of my heart” (although she hopes reading that doesn’t scare her parents about how long she will end up staying). Coming to Newtown from the Sunshine Coast just before COVID-19 has already caused her to remain longer in Sydney than she expected. So Elise has found herself having to make this new place home – by helping to make it more homely for some of Newtown’s struggling residents.
“I think it chose me,” says Elise about ending up in Newtown for almost two years. “I had never been to Sydney before … and when I got to Newtown, I was pleasantly surprised – by the suburb that it is. Its vibrance and the strong ethos that runs through the streets of belonging and eclectic vibe.
“I felt like I won the lottery when I arrived.”
Some Christians, though, might be freaked out by Newtown. It’s a out-and-proud melting pot for all kinds of expression of identity, be it sexuality, gender or belief system.
“Yeah … I absolutely love it. I think it’s a beautiful and diverse cross-section of humanity so if you are freaked out by Newtown, maybe you are just freaked out by humanity.”
In Newtown, YWAM often works with the prominent Newtown Mission, a Uniting church that is big on reaching out with food, clothing, comfort and friendship. Elise was also involved with Newtown Mission’s Jordan Café before COVID-19, serving and packaging up meals. Such volunteer experiences with her Inner West community are the kinds of neighbourly love that award-winning Elise wants to continue to provide.
“I’ve loved it because it’s in real time. It’s not a facilitated experience but life on life, working with lots of different people and agencies – and, even, belief systems. It’s something I love because I’m not doing it as part of a program. It’s genuine.”
“Getting any recognition for this kind of work is humbling – you don’t really expect it to happen – and it’s affirming for me that the work is meaningful.”