‘It’s like a family’


Lewiston’s Trinity Jubilee Center celebrates 25 years of offering ‘a big support system’

LEWISTON — Thursdays are usually food pantry days at the Trinity Jubilee Center in the basement of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lewiston. This Thursday, at noon, in honor of Thanksgiving, the center will instead host a special lunch with eight turkeys donated by the Bates College Nordic Ski Team.

There is much to be thankful for this year. Dec. 1 marks the 25th anniversary of the soup kitchen. The center’s board and the many people expected for lunch will celebrate with a special meal that reflects Lewiston’s diverse community. The center is a true local success story.

When the Trinity Episcopal Church opened the soup kitchen in 1991 at its location at 247 Bates St., it served an average of 75 people a day. In 2001, the center separated from the church and became its own non-religious, nonprofit entity.

Today, it sees more than 1,000 people each week, offering a food pantry, daily lunches, a warm place during the day, information, assistance and a sense of community found nowhere else in the city. 

It happens each day with a lot of hard work and community support. These are challenging economic times for many people.

“The people we work with, they’re not going to give up,” said Executive Director Erin Reed last Thursday. “And we’re not going to give up.” 

Year after year for over two decades, the center has cobbled together funding from the United Way, community development grants and donations from other nonprofits, businesses and individuals to sustain the mission and keep the lights on. There is no wealthy benefactor keeping the place going, but everyone who is affiliated with the center seems to be fully committed to its success.

“The doors are still open,” Reed said.

Last Thursday at 9 a.m., an hour and a half after the food pantry opened, there were about 20 people of all ages, genders and ethnicities lined up in the lobby for grocery bags of food.

“Everyone gets the same thing,” Reed explained, as she greeted each person by name. “This week, it’s potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes and Gatorade. It varies based on what we can get from the (Good Shepherd) Food Bank.”

Behind her in the kitchen, volunteers were prepping the 11 a.m. lunch, carting in boxes of food donated by Hannaford, as well as cleaning and organizing supplies. It’s hectic and noisy and, well, surprisingly jubilant.

The food for lunch today — as it is many days — was given to the center by a local Lewiston business.

“This was a donation yesterday from an employment agency downtown,” employee Scott Turcotte said. “Most of our stuff comes from Hannaford. Bates sends us some prepared food, too.”

The center relies almost entirely on donations. “Every day except Sundays, we have a meal at 11 o’clock and serve between 100 and 200 people,” Turcotte said.

What staff and volunteers don’t end up cooking for lunch, they give away.

While people continued to queue up for food on this day, others lounged on comfy couches or at picnic tables. Some worked on job applications or searched job boards online. A young girl entered with a baby and many gathered around to admire the swaddled infant.

Fatiah Ali, a volunteer who has been in Lewiston just over a month, was moving constantly from the kitchen to the lobby to the tables outside, translating and helping new visitors get signed up for the food pantry.

Volunteers: Making the ‘wheels’ turn

Volunteers are critical to the center’s success.

“On a given day, we probably have around 25 or 30,” Turcotte said.

The volunteers handle donations, do food prep and all of the custodial work, and help keep everything clean and sanitary.

“All our volunteers are refugees and asylum seekers,” he said. “They make the wheels of the whole place turn.”

Ali stopped for a minute to translate for another new arrival from Djibouti, a woman with a small child wrapped tightly around her legs.

“I speak very well French,” Ali explained. She ruffled the child’s head, teasing her, and earned a timid smile. “They give me home here in Lewiston. That’s why I volunteer.”

When asked if she liked the center, she smiled easily. “How can I not like it?” she said.

Another volunteer, Moussa Omar Ahmed, has been in Lewiston for seven months. He speaks almost fluent English and does a little bit of everything. Back in Djibouti, his uncle is an English teacher and Ahmed practiced his language skills working in a supermarket at the U.S. Army base and at the five-star Djibouti Palace Kempinski Hotel.

“When I came here, I found a place that I can say is going to be my country,” Ahmed said.

Everyone at the center appeared to know one other.

“It’s not so much that we are helping out the community as the community is working together to make this place run,” Turcotte explained.

On Thursdays, it is as much about receiving food as it is checking in, saying hi and spending time with friends.

“It’s like a family,” Reed explained. “And that means something different to everybody.”

“People (at the center) keep an eye out for each other, they take care of each other,” she added.

Reed offered an example, saying many double up on food pantry days. “You’re allowed to get a second bag . . . if you have a neighbor who’s disabled or elderly.”

Kitsie Claxton, a local volunteer who has been doing the Thursday Hannaford pickup for several years, is passionate about community engagement.

“In the wake of this election, I feel so strongly that these kinds of services are really critical and that anything that any of us can do (helps) to make it really, really clear that everyone is welcoming and deserving in this community,” Claxton said.

The center’s native Maine employees appreciate the community spirit as well. Arthur Pleau, born and raised in Lewiston, was a volunteer who became a part-time employee about a year-and-a-half ago. He gets paid to work 18 hours a week, but spends more like 25 hours a week at the center doing odd jobs — maintenance, custodial work, changing light bulbs, truck pickups — you name it.

“It’s like home,” he said. “Home away from home.”

One of the regulars, Vicki and her daughter, Rachel, also spoke about the family atmosphere at the center. Vicki, who is 62 years old, has been coming in off-and-on for 17 years, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes as a patron.

“It’s a big support system for her,” Rachel said of her mom. “She’s got a very limited income.”

Using the center: ‘It’s people you know’

The people who use the center defy stereotypes.

“People have different ideas about the sort of person who comes to a soup kitchen. It’s people you know,” Reed said. “It’s the cashier at the grocery store. It’s your waitress at a restaurant. Even if they don’t want you to know that they’re coming here, they are. And people are grateful for it.”

Many of the people who frequent the center live alone, or don’t have families or anyone to turn to for support and assistance. The door at the center is always open, judgment-free, and the employees and volunteers are there to serve whatever needs the people in the community may have.

Sometimes somebody just needs a dry blanket, a bathroom or a warm place to stay during the day.

“We get a lot of clothing donations in, household goods,” Turcotte said. “We have a big giveaway of all that stuff every Saturday at 2 o’clock.”

As winter approaches, Reed said they desperately need men’s boots, hats, gloves and large jackets.

The center also hosts a free clinic once a week. Last Thursday, the clinic was giving out a second round of flu shots after running through its supply two weeks earlier.

Robert Little, a 26-year-old University of Southern Maine nursing student from Wales, helps run the program.

“We try to do education with whatever the population needs,” Little said. “We’ve done dental hygiene. We’ve done overall hygiene. Sex education was a big one.

“Sometimes it’s rewarding, sometimes not so much,” Little added. “Some days we don’t get a lot of traffic. But if we’re here, at least we know that the service is being offered.”

All of the employees echoed that sentiment, stressing their commitment to serving the specific needs of the people who walk through the door.

Turcotte said he spends the majority of his time in the office helping people with job applications or filling out insurance forms and immigration paperwork.

“When the office is open, it’s crammed with people who need X, Y and Z,” he said.

Three weeks ago the center put up a job board that is now covered with photographs of people who are working.

“Every day, it seems like I have people coming in saying ‘I got a job!’” Turcotte said. 

Sometimes hope is as boring as filling out a job application, Reed said.

“You just need to sit there and help fill out that Wal-Mart application 15 times in a row — and it’s boring,” Reed said. But it’s going to get somebody a job and it’s going to change their life.”

“No job, no life,” explained Tandele Ipo, who came to Lewiston in September 2015 from Angola. He used to be a volunteer but now works at Bonney Staffing — and is grateful for the work.

“Just in the past year, we’ve helped 135 people find jobs,” Reed said. According to her, the market is improving.

“It’s getting a lot easier to find work around here,” she said.

Reed shared one success story that was particularly meaningful to her. “I had a woman the other day. She came into the office. She said, ‘Hold out your hand’ and I did, and she put a little piece of plastic in it and it was a name tag for her new job.”

There is a palpable current of hope running through the center. But there are also numerous challenges inherent to service work.

“Every day, there are a hundred things that need to be done and sometimes you can only get 99 of them done,” Turcotte said.

“This job definitely takes a lot out of you,” Reed said. “But no matter how late I’m here at night, I’m still going home to a warm bed, and that’s a lot more than a lot of people have.”

Stopping long enough to listen

Perhaps one of the most critical services the center tries to offer is a good ear.

“Listen to what people are asking you to do,” Reed said. “Don’t just come in and say, ‘This is what the community needs. This is what will save people.’ People know what they need to get out of these situations. It’s not about you. It’s about these guys.” 

Turcotte has only been at the center for eight months, but he said it feels much longer because of the connections he’s made.

“One of the most rewarding things about working here is getting to know everybody,” he said. “Very impressive people. It’s a humbling place to work.”

The Trinity Jubilee Center is yet another reason to be thankful on a day to celebrate gratitude.

“The people we work with, they’re not going to give up. And we’re not going to give up,” said Executive Director Erin Reed.