LEWISTON — One thing Joel Furrow, director of the Root Cellar-Lewiston, has learned is that people want help, but they don’t want to be given it for free.
“If you just hand stuff out for free, you don’t give a lot of dignity to the folks you serve,” Furrow said. “It’s more about empowering them to help do what they want and choose what they need to do.”
It’s one of the many things operators of the Birch Street center devoted to downtown Lewiston teens and children has learned in the five years since it opened.
It’s a big turnaround in a short time. The group was considering shutting down this past summer but started a fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $50,000 in 50 days. Supporters did better than that, raising $54,000 in 45 days — $62,000 by the end of the campaign.
“It’s a big difference,” Furrow said. “We think God’s got a big plan for this community and we want to be a part of it.”
The Root Cellar operates a 17,000-square-foot nondenominational Christian community center in the Munjoy Hill area of Portland. It opened in 1984, offering teen and after-school programs. Since then, it has grown to include food distribution, English as a second language classes, community dentistry and counseling.
The Lewiston Root Cellar opened on Valentine’s Day 2009. Furrow said the group plans to mark the occasion next Thursday during its regular community dinner.
“Five years is not 30 years, so we’re not making it anything bigger than it is,” he said. “It’s going to be a community gathering based on the normal group of people that regularly comes in.”
Furrow, who joined the group in 2012, said the original plan was to simply duplicate the Portland program. Part of that involved a free clothing distribution.
“It’s a type of thing that’s very well-meaning, and a lot of people can get involved,” Furrow said.
Furrow said some members of the community viewed the donations poorly, so the group began charging $1 for a bag.
“It was very successful, and it got to the point we had to decide if we were going to become a clothing store or something else,” he said.
Today, the Lewiston center focuses on homework help and educational help for downtown teens and children, craft and art training for teens and adults and providing a safe place for teens to hang out.
“We tried a lot of things, but we learned that the best way of moving forward has been to Lewiston-ize this as much as possible,” Furrow said. “This is the Lewiston Root Cellar. It’s not a carbon copy of Portland at all.”