Hot meals for kids is Manj Essen’s mission

Retired headmistress Manj Essen, 50, is helping to feed hungry children alongside her family and volunteers as part of the Feed a Family charity organization.
Retired headmistress Manj Essen, 50, is helping to feed hungry children alongside her family and volunteers as part of the Feed a Family charity organization.

Local Hero nominee Manj Essen, 50, from Dorchester Heights, has been organising hot meals for hundreds of children and asks for nothing in return. 

The retired headmistress started the charity, Feed a Family East London (FAFEL), in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic with a group of close friends, including Essen’s husband and two daughters.

Since its inception, the organisation feeds the “forgotten children” who live in the shacks behind AW Barnes Primary School in Parkside, helped set up feeding schemes in other neighbourhoods, and co-ordinated donation drives and school fee bursaries for children.

“We have always done charity work, but in 2020 people were getting sick or retrenched, we felt we needed to do more,” Essen said.

“We fed the kids and just couldn’t turn and leave. People were battling, there was no money, no food, no work.” 

Not a registered NGO or NPO, the charity’s success is deeply rooted in community support and the help of 10 dedicated volunteers. 

“On our very first day, we fed over 3,000 people, we went to every suburb we could,” Essen said.

“We recruited kitchens, and supplied them with food to cook.

“As time progressed, we moved into Second Creek and we never left, we couldn’t turn our backs on those kids.”

Located in Parkside, FAFEL has a feeding scheme every weekend for more than 300 children, and either once or twice a week depending on supplies.

It also co-ordinates monthly supplies for kitchens in Southernwood which feed about 70 people a day. 

The hot meals consist of anything from rice and vegetables, hot dogs and Vienna-sausage chutney to biryani.

“It’s hard, we know some of these kids are being abused, living in shacks, having their shacks burned down — kids are burned all the time.

“We lost a four-year-old girl who was playing in a tree and touched illegal power lines.”

The accident happened a week before their Santa gift collection drive, an annual Christmas gift initiative arranged by ex-East Londoners for FAFEL since 2020.

“They send gifts from all over the country, anything from toothpaste to stationery, and every Christmas we arrive with someone in a Santa suit, we have hamburgers and hand out presents to the kids.”

Essen helped with the funeral arrangements for the little girl. 

“I asked her mom to give me a photo of the child and she didn’t have a single one, there were no pictures of her.

“I said ‘What do you need?’ We buried her in a white dress and white shoes.”

FAFEL has organised school shoe drives, stationery pack collections, dignity packs of toiletries and Easter handouts to children. 

Every three months, they bring food to the Morgan Bay and Kei Mouth areas.

They also organised a collection of items to be donated to Ukraine in 2023.

Donations come from individuals and businesses.

The charity received a donation of R67,110 raised by the Ramoo family in 2023 — R20,000 of this sponsored a year of schooling for 10 children under  the Glyn Ramoo bursary.

Essen said the total cost of the food was R3,500 a  week.

She is now collecting beanies for the winter clothing drive. 

“We never thought about the work we have done until this nomination, I am extremely humbled,” she said.

“I had two goals starting this — to create awareness that people are battling right here in our town, and the second was to start a movement of paying it forward.

“I am completely humbled that my two dreams came true.

“I could never have done this without my family and amazing team who sacrifice their weekends, and all our supporters who believe in us.”

Volunteer and one of the founders, Vishnu Naicker, 50, from Gonubie, said: “Manj has a family of her own, but goes out of her way for all children.

“She goes beyond her means. We don’t do this for the fame but from the bottom of our hearts. 

“Whether she is announced as a winner or not, she is a hero to us.”

Monthly donor Naomi Shivali Jose, from Vincent Heights, said: “Manj is one of the most selfless people I know.

“The work she does is so important and close to my heart, as it involves feeding hungry children.”







Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.