When Brigitte Mouatt was cruelly broadsided by a major and rare health issue, it motivated her to go out and help those even less fortunate than herself.
The woman, who loves food but hasn’t eaten a proper meal for five years, was diagnosed with gastroparesis – paralysis of the digestive tract. It prevents her stomach from emptying.
Now she’s helping put food on the tables of families struggling to feed themselves. And Brigitte needs a hand to continue her good work and the work of her not-for-profit organisation Arms of Angels.
It works by families donating as little as $15 a week to cover the cost of a hot and nourishing evening meal. This is supplied weekly to a family which needs it.
Fifteen dollars a week for six weeks – six weeks because it’s a hand up, not a hand out.
“So just $90, an affordable amount. And sponsors are always pleased their money is staying in the neighbourhood, it doesn’t leave the community,” says Brigitte.
So somewhere in Tauranga this week, when it was least expected, some chicken, spice and tomato paste, coconut cream, onion and rice will be simmering on a stove.
“A meal for a family which couldn’t have managed it on its own,” says Brigitte. Tonight, butter chicken.
“It may be a young mum and dad on a low income and experiencing financial difficulty or an elderly retired person struggling. And putting a wholesome meal on the table at night is something they’re increasingly unable to afford.”
The Arms of Angels, a group of eight volunteers, don’t actually prepare the meal, they deliver all the ingredients and the recipe so the family can prepare the dish. Remember – a hand up, not hand out.
More than a 1000 meals have been distributed in two years. “A lot of food,” says Brigitte.
They have about 20 families on their books at the moment. “But we could do way more if we had more sponsors, more kind families. Probably another 100.”
Brigitte believes there is a perception that we live in a city of no poverty.
“They think ‘wow, a lovely wealthy area’. But even in some pockets of the wealth there's poverty. I go into Matua, Otumoetai and Papamoa and meet families absolutely living on the poverty line.”
And there’s rich irony here – because the woman hell-bent on feeding Tauranga’s hungry will, herself, never eat another meal.
Brigitte says that’s because of her rare gastroparesis condition which was caused by a medical misadventure. Her body simply can’t process food.
She likened it to a death sentence.
“My brain was telling me I needed to eat to survive and my tummy kept telling me it was empty. And I would cry and cry, and cry because I was so hungry.”
To feel normal, Brigitte would make huge amounts of food.
“I needed to touch the food, smell the food and I would cry as I made it.”
It was like a grief process. Then she had to give all the food away. And there lay the inspiration, the beginning of Arms of Angels.
“Now, I get by on a cup of coffee, an ice block or I suck lollipops.” The rest of her food requirements, her nutrients and fluids, are pumped into her intestines by a machine which she’s hooked up to 20 hours a day.
And she’s constantly reminded about what she’s missing out on.
“Everything revolves around food. As soon as people gather there’s food.”
And there’s Brigitte, with her pump and smoothie type concoction. It impacted her social life for a long time – people stopped inviting her anywhere because they would be eating food. “But if you don’t ask me, I will never get to go anywhere.”
The woman who’s endured more than a share of life’s knocks, has little, wants little, but is still smiling, laughing and is still giving.
“I want to enjoy life, I like life, I love life. Although there were many times I could have given up, I could have said this is all too hard and lain in bed and died.”
Last Christmas, Arms of Angels delivered a Christmas tree, decorations, food and presents to a woman and her children at a Tauranga safe house.
“The kids were so excited they were squealing.”
They moved into the house with only the clothes they were wearing and could afford nothing. “I will never forget this family, how grateful they were and the Mum said as soon she could afford it, she would love to sponsor a family.”
What goes round, comes round.
If you would like to put a meal in front of an appreciative family go to the Arms of Angels website: www.armsofangels.co.nz