RUMFORD — The message of Thursday’s forum was clear — agencies need to work together to help and not enable, if they are to change many of the attitudes in this area.
A dozen people, including an elementary school principal, a police officer, a landlord and a case manager took part in the two-hour discussion, organized and hosted by Pastor Justin Thacker of Praise Assembly of God. These are people who are on the front lines of dealing with people who are in need.
‘Over the past three years, we’ve seen a great increase in the amount of people requesting benevolence and other services on a regular basis. Food pantry shelves seems to always be empty, substance abuse (especially of our youth) is on the rise, counseling services are in high demand, police are underfunded and short on staff, and our teachers and administrators are in constant struggles to meet the needs of parents and children,’ said Thacker, who noted that an astounding 27 percent of local families are utilizing food pantries in Dixfield, Peru, Rumford and Mexico.
Thacker said when a habit is so bad, people will sell turkey baskets, canned goods and other items they get from food pantries.
‘The fact that we’re shedding some light on what’s going on, behind the scenes, is a step in the right direction. Sometimes you can’t treat a problem until you recognize it, until the folks who are in the front lines begin to realize what’s happening and their voice is heard,’ he said.
Dixfield Police Officer Anne Simmons-Edmunds said, ‘Instead of doing a food pantry, why can’t you network with all the other churches; instead of giving food away, cook food and bring the masses to you to eat it. If there’s leftovers, here, take a plate of leftovers home. You can’t sell leftovers.’
Thacker said that’s a great idea. ‘We talked about that, getting churches together like that. There was supposed to be three others here today; not sure why they’re not here. One, for food pantries, a lot of them get government funding. We don’t here. To get that food and that money, they have to reach a certain amount of families.’
Another issue are students who bring their own problems to school.
Rumford Elementary School Principal Chris Decker noted, ‘In years past, you had support from the families and now you don’t. ‘It’s your problem and your school. You deal with it.” Brandy Ledesma, speaking about the recently opened food pantry at RES, noted, ‘I know there are people who really need it, but I know there are others who treat it like a grocery store. I do know they (the students) get breakfast and lunch (through the school), but if we don’t hold the parents up to feed them one meal a day, then next they’re going to be setting up cots…’
‘The standards are so low, and it’s hard not to help. We’ve been closed at the church for the food pantry and there are some people I didn’t feel bad about saying ‘I’m sorry but we’re closed for the next three weeks.’ And then there were others who came in and you knew they were hungry. It’s very difficult,’ she said.
Erica Jamison, who will be the administrator of the new K-12 school at the Praise Assembly of God Church in the fall, there is definitely an attitude change in people. It changes from an appreciative attitude to an expecting attitude, whereas the more you want to give, the more they want to take. The more they don’t want to try to help themselves. If you go back to the helping model, the teaching model, there can be a great attitude change there for the better. Ownership of your situation. Ownership of getting tools to help yourself to have a better life.’
Thacker said, ‘I’m more motivated now than ever to help with the solution. I’m determined to see the chain break. When you’re somewhere for 11 years and you see kids coming back through the system that you worked with 10 years ago that were nine years old and now are 19, having children…it just stirs ya.’
Simmons-Edmunds said, ‘As an animal control officer, I pick up more cats that are abandoned when somebody moves out. They shouldn’t have the cats to begin with. They can’t feed themselves and they can’t feed the cat, but nobody wants to hear that. If you can’t take care of yourself, don’t have the cat.’
Thacker added, ‘I’ve got people I worked with who have coats for their animals, but they don’t have a coat for themselves, or their children.’
Tim Cormier, case manager for homeless shelter with Rumford Group Homes, said, ‘I had one guy who came in my office. His therapist called me and said this guy really needs help. He comes in, he need disability, and I help him through the entire process. I haven’t seen him since we got that process done. He’s just in a waiting pattern to see if he gets his disability.’
Ledesma noted that there is free lunch once a month at Praise Assembly of God, a free family dinner and movie night there, with River Valley Healthy Communities (on Tuesday) providing vegetables and how to cook. So there’s three opportunities a month that they (parents) don’t have to do anything for.
Thacker added that GRAMPS also has the free Wednesday meals in Mexico.
Ledesma continued, ‘Most, especially the larger families, are getting enough to cover 30 dinners and the weekends.’
Thacker said the average family of four in Maine is receiving $470 per month.
Ledesma said, ‘If you’re shopping correctly, you can do a lot with that. For me, the bigger piece is getting Healthy Communities or Oxford County to come in and use what their education is to education our people, or anybody, to use those resources to show people how to learn to shop smart because they are getting opportunities for meals. On the whole. Not every family because there are middle class families who don’t get the help, who don’t have those things, more than there needs to be.
Simmons-Edmunds said, ‘It hurts, yes, but I think it’s time society steps up and says ‘You have to be a parent.” Thacker said they need to network — communicating with each other, building relationships, making referrals, learning and understanding -‘so that those legitimately in need of help are going to get help. Those who are playing the system, they’re being found out, and there’s some attention to it. We have to educate, become aware, network and hopefully see people’s hearts change because we can’t keep going at this pace as a town, or even as a state. We have to make changes to help a person or family in need without enabling them. If we don’t change, we can’t expect anything else to change.’
‘It is my opinion that if we work together and understand each other’s services and goals, we can better serve the River Valley community. Sometimes we’re just not sure and sometimes we’re doing work someone else is doing better, so we could refer them.
Sometimes, there’s a service we think is being provided and it’s not being provided,’ said Thacker.
Thacker said he would like to invite the public from noon to 3 p.m. here on Thursday, March 6 as part of the education piece ‘to see if we can change the morale and integrity of a lot of our citizens and see if we can break the cycle with our kids.’
‘What’s the answer? Awareness and education. I just believe that, especially with the kids, teens and young adults where we can impact the lives of people. With education, knowing is half the battle,’ he said.
For more information on the forum, call 364-3856 or 357-4748.