By Andrea Rowe Photos Yanni
Jacky Howgate loves a chat. And a cuppa. Which is a good thing, because she’s the volunteer coordinator of the Mornington Peninsula Chatty Café, a new scheme to get people talking and reduce loneliness. Originally from UK, the initiative is serving up company on the Mornington Peninsula – encouraging strangers to switch off their screens, sit down, meet a new face, grab a cuppa and have an old-fashioned chat.
The concept has spread across the country, and with Chatty Café Australia now a registered charity, there’s more opportunities than ever for people to gather and connect. 55-year-old Jacky has led the charge for the Mornington Peninsula to grow this grass roots gathering; “I’d always wanted to give something back to community, and this felt like a really good fit for me.”
Jacky says the Chatty Café model creates a safe and inclusive environment for people to talk in cafes or community gathering spaces, whether it’s for a one-hour chat or a longer stint. It costs nothing to attend, just the price of a cuppa and cake (though at the Community Houses and Information Centres cuppas are free). The benefits of making new friends or forming shared interest in communities are priceless.
UK Founder Alex Hoskyn formed the idea in 2017 when she was a new mum feeling isolated. Jacky felt an instant connection with the charity, which has gone on to receive the Innovation for Ageing Award from the International Longevity Centre.
The Mornington Peninsula is the newest addition with Jacky championing the program for cafes and restaurants to dedicate one of their tables for patrons who are looking for company to gather and chat. Volunteer hosts help keep the conversation going. It’s not just cafes; libraries, and community and information centres are also getting in on the Chatty Café act in this grassroots campaign to build community.
“We now have eight peninsula venues featuring cafe tables marked by a little yellow sign welcoming people to sit and enjoy a conversation.”
Chatty Cafés aim to tackle loneliness by bringing people together. Australian’s have been struggling with isolation and loneliness during lockdowns, despite the increase in online interactions. Research shows that one in four Australians have reported that they experience loneliness and social disconnection every week. Since COVID times, that’s increased to one in two people. Shrinking friendship groups, families living apart and the post pandemic ‘regrowing’ of friendships has left its mark.
“The first time I attended a Chatty Café,
I talked to an older woman new to the area, and soon learnt that this was one of the first decent conversations she’d had. Our chat really mattered to her.”
“Others have told me that talking to someone else had made their day. Once a woman brought along her mother-in-law who didn’t know anyone; by the end of the day she’d made friends and signed up for a community knitting program. A Chatty Café conversation can often be the jigsaw piece in the puzzle of feeling like you belong and have connections. A chat can really make a change for the better, which is great for all of society,” said Jacky.
Along with fellow volunteer hosts, and under the guidance of the Australian Chatty Café director, Jacky has welcomed newcomers, long term residents who are missing family, retired folks, families settling relocated in-laws into the community, mums with first bubs who missed out on Mother’s Groups during lockdown and carers and their charges seeking meaningful interaction.
According to Jacky, “We are all about inclusivity. It’s a safe place for everyone and there’s no stigma attached and new friendships develop. Interaction with one other person can just brighten your day and have such a positive impact”.
There’s no set formula for how each gathering unfolds. “Some people have arrived for morning tea, enjoyed the chat and stayed on and ordered lunch. Others have brought a pack of cards to keep the fun moving along. Some are in community centres and others commercial venues.”
Jacky is especially connected with people navigating times of crisis, disability and change, having been impacted by her own challenges. Migrating from the UK 16 years ago to the Peninsula with her two children and teacher husband, they settled in Mt Eliza. In 2018, while working as the Head of Languages at Mentone Girls Grammar, Jacky was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and it has been a steady road to recovery and rehabilitation since.
“Being involved has had such a positive affirmation and impact for me. It has given me back my self-esteem. I’m removed from my own troubles and can make a difference to somebody else; it’s such a ripple effect.”
The ripple of contribution features prominently in Jacky’s coastal life; she “loves the Mornington community, the beaches and the have-a-go mentality of locals.” She has headed up the local Army Cadet Unit, is the Founder of the Mornington Morning Mermaids, a social ocean swimming group, has volunteered with Swim Victoria, and this summer is undertaking her Bronze Medallion to become a patroller with the Mornington Surf Life Saving Club; all while working as a Classroom assistant at Casey Grammar.
“I channel my mental health challenges and recovery through volunteering; it’s all been hugely important to me in rediscovering my organisational and people skills, as well as being a recipient.”
Jacky added that there are currently eight Chatty Café locations on the Peninsula, and Jacky is recruiting other volunteers to help facilitate the table chats.
“Café owners are keen to connect to the community and setting a table aside helps them at little or no cost to the business. They have loved the vibe of a new group of people gathering by the yellow signs on their tables. It would be so great to see Chatty Cafés as the norm everywhere, “ Jacky said.
It all starts with a cuppa, but it’s clearly the conversation and company that counts.