"Up the Roosters!"
As Mark Nicholls and other Salvation Army volunteers distribute meals to the homeless at Central Station, Wentworth Park, Kings Cross and Martin Place, some of the grateful recipients are keen to engage in banter with the South Sydney prop about the NRL’s oldest rivalry.
Besides the uncertainty of where they will sleep each night or when they will eat again, many homeless people struggle with loneliness.
“Sometimes they are just happy that someone stops for five minutes to have a conversation with them,” Nicholls said.
“A lot of people just walk past homeless people in their day-to-day lives, so after they found out I play for Souths some of them just wanted to tell me that they go for the Roosters because it is five minutes of interaction that they don’t normally get.”
Nicholls, who captained the Rabbitohs in their round 25 clash with the Dragons, has been volunteering with the Salvation Army since his first season with the club in 2018.
Then Rabbitohs coach Anthony Seibold introduced Nicholls to the Salvos after telling him how he had taken his daughters to feed the homeless in Sydney.
Former Storm team-mate Nate Myles had previously advised him of the virtues of charity work when they roomed together while playing for Easts Tigers in the last match of the Queensland great's career.
Nicholls chuffed by unexpected honour
“Seibs said his kids had gotten a lot out of it, as well, so I just volunteered my time and I went out once,” Nicholls said. “That was four years ago, and I have been going back regularly since.”
Initially, Nicholls would join about eight other volunteers at the Salvation Army Sydney Congress Hall, near Central Station, and walk to designated distribution points at Wentworth Park, Kings Cross and Martin Place, carrying the hot meals and bottled water with them.
The Salvation Army now has a mini-bus to transport them on the 9km round trip and over time Nicholls - the Rabbitohs 2021 Bob McCarthy clubman of the year - has become friends with some of the organisers and regular volunteers.
“A lot of the volunteers are Parramatta fans so when we played the Eels earlier this year I organised some tickets for them but unfortunately I only lasted about 10 minutes before going off for a HIA and never came back on,” Nicholls said.
“A few of the volunteers were ribbing me about coming to the game and not seeing much action from me. They are all great people, which makes you want to go back. Danny, who runs the Outreach program, is someone I’d now call a mate.”
His involvement has increased to include visits to William Booth House, which offers a rehabilitation service for alcohol and drug addition, and a recent trip to Wagga Wagga with the Salvation Army.
“I did a bit of everything in Wagga,” Nicholls said. “We went and visited the local christian high school, we had a tour of their [Salvo’s] Family Store, which I have been told is the second best in NSW. I think their turnover was $1 million per year, which goes back into the community.
“We went to Kmart to promote the Christmas Giving Tree that every Kmart has for people to buy a toy in the store and put it under the tree on their way out.
“We went to meet a youth group who catch up once per week. They were having a barbecue in the park. I kicked the footy around and played a bit of touch with them, then we helped feed the homeless that night in Wagga.
“There are a lot of people throughout Australia who are suffering, especially with what we have gone through the last two years with COVID, and I guess part of going there was to get the message out and about that the Salvos don’t want anyone to suffer this Christmas.
“If people are struggling, they can reach out to the Salvation Army for help.”
As for Nicholls, the 31-year-old believes he gets as much from the experience as he puts into it.
“It is great if you have lost a game, or you get injured, or things aren’t going right in footy, to put things into perspective,” he said. “That’s what Nate had told me.
"We were just talking as room-mates and for someone who had done everything in the game he said that probably wasn’t where he had saw his career ending but during that week he had gone out in Melbourne to help feed the homeless.
“He told me about how much he had got out of feeding the homeless and that there were so many people on the streets struggling, but they were so grateful to get whatever people go out and provide."
“He said it had given him great perspective and how grateful he was to have had the career he’d had, and for his family. I feel the same."