PAUL’S Table is the stuff of dreams. Or, to be more precise, of faith. It’s an unlikely idea that’s been forged by life experience and finally made real, here in Bass Coast.
Run by Tracey and Ross Denby, Paul’s Table is an unusual cafe which opened at the Bass Valley Community Centre last Sunday. Paul was their son, who died in 1999 aged 13.
The journey here has taken years. First and most profoundly, there was Paul’s debilitating disease and their gratitude for the times people opened their hearts to a beloved son and accepted his difference. Like the owners of Loch’s Stockyard Tea Rooms, who responded to a boy lying on the floor as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Fifteen years later, Ross retired from teaching. For years he’d assumed that he was entitled to a long and leisured retirement in which his only occupation would be the pursuit of his own pleasure. But it became increasingly obvious to them that the retirement they’d contemplated would give them no satisfaction at all.
They knew they’d lived privileged lives. In middle age Tracey had completed a degree, three diplomas and a certificate. “How lucky I am to live in a country where I can do that,” she’d say. It was time to give back. There were awful things happening in the world. “We can do something,” they said. “Make a difference.”
So they went to Myanmar for two years with a development organisation, Ross as a teacher and Tracey as an accountant
Surrounded by poverty, they decided they could do more. In the days free of their volunteer work, they would run their own drop-in centre for street kids. On their own, there’d be less red tape. “We found an old house to rent – it was in shocking condition – cleaned it up and rewired it.”
It became a place for learning, lunch and support. And more. “We ironed out a few rough edges, taught them some social skills, took them out, went to cafes. The manager of one cafe actually asked if he could take a photo of our kids,” says Tracey. And they’ll tell you, this enterprising couple, that being outgoing runs against their nature.
They got to know a group of African footballers who had been lured over to Myanmar on a scam and were abandoned there, hounded by the police. Tracey and Ross had them over for a weekly meal. “My heart goes out to people who are marginalised and shunned,” says Ross. “We want to treat people as we wanted people to treat Paul. “
While they were in Myanmar they used to watch an unusual food program on the television. It aimed to achieve a common understanding between people of different religions and cultures by bringing them together around a table to share each other’s food and talk about different issues. The concept seemed to work.
Myanmar was an eye opener. “We learnt what a community really means,” says Ross. “We’d never experienced anything like it. We live such insulated lives here in Australia. People there have so little. They’re dirt poor but they share what they have and support each other.” The couple came back fired by what they had learned.
They moved to Newhaven to be near their daughter and her baby and had a stint as night managers in the youth hostel. The meal area is central to daily life at the Big Wave. “It breaks down barriers,” says Tracey. “You’re reminded that people are the same the world over.” They’ve changed, Ross and Tracey. Faced with a stranger, Ross says he’s now far more likely to be the first one to say G’day!
Everything has come together. The coast is beautiful. The time is right, the venue’s right.
At Paul’s Table, all are welcome. Quality matters there – decor, crockery, table settings – because “everyone who comes should feel important and valued”. The Denbys are saying to every customer, This is your cafe. What do you want from it?
On Sundays the cafe offers a community breakfast between 8.30am and 10am and a cafe service from 10am till 2pm. There is a system of gold coin donations for different menu items. On Wednesday during opening hours Ross and Tracey are hoping that special schools in the area will take advantage of the opportunity the cafe offers to engage with other customers or carry out basic training in hospitality.
Their motto is Equality, Acceptance, Tolerance. “ If people are in a hurry this will not be the place for them,” says Tracey firmly. “This isn’t about making money. It’s a not-for-profit venture.” Their criteria are different. “We are all deserving of acceptance. If anyone walks away feeling better about themselves, feeling more confident, we’ve been successful.”
Paul’s Table, in the Bass Hall, Bass School Rd, opens for a community breakfast every Sunday 8.30-10am. Cafe open every Sunday and Wednesday 10am-2pm.