LEWISTON — Mkundo Mkonje heard about Hope House shortly after her family arrived in Lewiston in 2010.
A few friends knew about it, she said, and one day she followed them there and “fell in love with the place.” A few years later, she’s supervising and spearheading much of its volunteer operation.
Hope House, a community center and health clinic in former church buildings on College Street, has seen its volunteer base and activity flourish over the years as the surrounding neighborhoods have become more diverse.
Bruce and Jan Willson of Mechanic Falls founded the center in 1986. On Friday, the pair sat with Mkonje and her daughter to talk about that growth, and how much the Somali and immigrant community has done for Hope House.
Jan Willson said Mkonje was among the first in the immigrant community to join the volunteer ranks, and has remained a constant presence. Many members of her large family, including her daughter Halima Haji, who is one of seven, also volunteer when they can.
Haji served as interpreter for her mother, who speaks multiple languages but is still learning English.
During most of the year, Mkonje leads a weekly farmer’s market hosted there. It’s set up much like a food pantry. If guests are lucky, they might get to sample some of her sought-after sambusa, a traditional Somali stuffed pastry. Or they might get some tips about gardening or farming.
“You can get them here in Lewiston, but Mkundo makes the best,” Willson said about Mkonje’s sambusa.
She said the focus on fresh produce and food has grown the weekly farmer’s market, and Mkonje is responsible for turning it from “something that wasn’t as popular, to now the main thing that everybody comes for.”
“I think people are healthier for it,” she added.
Bruce Willson said the center sees about 60 to 80 families a week to take advantage of the food.
Mkonje has also used her farming knowledge to help the center grow its own produce. She showed the Willsons the proper way to plant corn at their home in Mechanic Falls.
“Mkundo has a mother’s heart,” Willson said. “She makes sure we eat good, and takes care of us.”
Willson said the center’s Thanksgiving dinners have become a flavorful affair ever since more Somalis and volunteers from different ethnic backgrounds began bringing dishes to the annual event.
Bruce Willson clicked through a slideshow of some recent photos of Hope House volunteers, and Mkonje appeared in every one. She’s won several “certificates of appreciation.”
When the center received a large donation of warm coats this past fall, Mkonje came up with a fun way to hand them out. At their fall fair, children could win tickets during games and cash them for a new coat.
Willson said Mkonje’s efforts help to “link the neighborhood.” Volunteers like Mkonje, she said, play a large role in Lewiston’s reputation as a community that “encourages peaceful relationships.”
The farmer’s market at Hope House operates most Wednesdays throughout the year from 10 a.m. to noon. Asked how often she’s at Hope House, Mkonje said, she’s “never missed a day.”
“She’s always calling us when we’re taking a break, asking if we’re open this week,” Bruce Willson said.
He said the crew at Hope House is “still trying to catch our breath” following their annual whirlwind holiday campaign, Hope for the Holidays.
During a two-week stretch, the center allows local residents and neighbors to choose a number of gifts, food and clothing to share with family and friends during the holidays. The items are donated from places such as Toys for Tots, Five Below in Portland, and handed out at Hope House by volunteers like Mkonje.
Some 200 families took advantage of the program this year, Bruce Willson said.
Jan Willson said that while they and many of their volunteers and clients practice different religions and holidays, the community there “celebrates their diverse faiths and holidays together.”
Although Mkonje has been volunteering for about six years, she’s still brainstorming new initiatives. She said she’d love to see the Hope House farmer’s market or food pantry set up other locations in Lewiston.
Asked what keeps her coming back to volunteer each week, she said “every day is rewarding.”
Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of their time to make their community a better place? Then nominate them for Kudos. Send their name and the place where they do their good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] and we’ll do the rest.
Mkundo Mkonje stands in the storeroom of Hope House in Lewiston, where she is a volunteer in its farmer’s market and food pantry. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)