LEWISTON — When Erin Reed hired a burly ex-Marine from southern New Jersey to guide volunteers at Lewiston’s Trinity Jubilee Center, she worried how he’d be accepted by people seeking out a meal, help with a job application or just a place to be warm.
So many of the center’s clients have been bitten by a cold world.
“For some, no one knows their name,” said Reed, the center’s executive director. “No one’s happy to see them, and there’s definitely no one calling them ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ So when they come in here and Mike does all that for them, plus finds them a coat, warm socks and a toy for their kid, they’re a little surprised, but grateful.”
To Mike Garrett, it’s just the way people ought to be treated.
“I’ve always loved people,” Garrett said. “I love to serve. I have a servant’s heart.”
Though he just passed the two-month mark since he started working as the basement shelter’s volunteer coordinator, Garrett has quickly become a fixture, Reed said.
“He’s paying attention and paying respect to the people no one notices,” she said.
In part, it feels natural, said Garrett, who grew up in the neighborhoods south of Philadelphia.
“I didn’t come up rich, so I’m used to kind of being tight and I’m used to being around people who are experiencing those struggles,” he said.
After high school, he joined the Marines.
He served for five years, leaving the service in December 2002, when his kids were still little. He and his wife, Janet, wanted something different.
“I found another way to serve,” he said.
They moved to Maine, where Mike’s sister had already relocated, and settled in.
Janet went to work. Mike home-schooled their son and two daughters, now ages 14, 15 and 16.
He, too, went to school, eventually earning his degree in social and behavioral sciences from the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.
When he graduated, he worked security for a local medical business. After two years, he quit.
“Instead of being the ‘no’ guy, I wanted to be the ‘yes’ guy,” he said. “I wanted to help people out and be the guy that could facilitate whatever they need.”
Trinity fit the bill.
“He just cares, and he really wanted to be here,” Reed said. “That’s something you don’t find very often. This is not easy work, and he’s doing an incredible job.”
He started his second week on the job before dawn, she said.
“I came in on Monday at 7 a.m. and he was already here, patching a hole in the wall,” she said.
On Tuesday, Garrett spent much of the morning surrounded by chaos.
While dozens lined up for lunch, he helped a woman with information he looked up on his smartphone while another 10 people sat nearby, many with jobs for him.
At other moments, he was hauling boxes. He was quick and completed the work with seemingly little effort.
In part, his muscles helped.
“I’m kind of bashful about it,” Garrett said of his weightlifter’s physique. That and the tattoos on his arms often give people the wrong idea.
He works out to feel good.
“I started before I started drinking coffee,” he said. “It’s my oldest habit.”
As for the tattoos, he just likes their dark ink, he said.
“It’s really such the opposite of what’s inside me,” Garrett said. “People kind of label you a certain way, but my heart is really what guides me through life. It’s what I listen to the most.”
It’s what keeps him at the shelter.
On Thanksgiving, the shelter hosted about 150 people for a meal. At the day’s end, Garrett found himself dancing with the volunteers who cleaned up in the aftermath.
“Every day I come in here I learn from these folks,” he said.
He aims to make the center a safe place for the people who need it. And he wants the people served by the center to always feel better because they visited.
The alternative is unthinkable, said Garrett, whose father died unexpectedly in 2009.
“My dad was gone without a moment’s notice,” he said. “It really woke me up to realize that I could be the last person you speak to. If that’s what happens, I hope it was a positive interaction.”
The effort is worth it, he said.
“At the end of the day, you go home and you feel full and your heart’s overflowing,” he said. “You just feel that you’re doing a good job for your community.”