RUMFORD — Pastor Justin Thacker is consumed these days when one distinct thought — is his food pantry at Praise Assembly of God, as well as other food pantries, really helping people or just enabling their bad habits?

He has reason to be concerned.

Following the church’s annual Thanksgiving giveaway, in which 30 volunteers put together baskets from donations and deliver to 100 area families, Thacker said three families served confessed to him that they took advantage of the church. In one case, receiving that food allowed the adults to cash in their food stamps and spend it at the Oxford Casino.

Hearing those confessions took a toll.

‘It hurts. It hurts. It’s gut wrenching to think that maybe you’re contributing to the problem,’ said Thacker.

‘The Thanksgiving project is my favorite one we do all year. I love the Thanksgiving project. And when that happened, that was gut wrenching. I appreciate the fact that someone confessed. I’m still not sure if they did that because they wanted me to feel sorry for them to give them more, since they lost everything at the casino, and to help them with their kids and all. But at least they came and confessed it to me, so there was some honor in that,’ he said.

‘When someone comes up to you and says ‘I just want you know, I’m sorry. I knew you’d bail me out. I took my food stamps. I sold them for $400 and got this stuff, and now I’m in need. But I knew you’d be there. So thanks,’ said Thacker.

After going to back to his roots in Maryland for five days to recharge his batteries, he returned reenergized and motivated.

‘Once I realized what was happening. Okay, let’s put a plan into action. Let’s get everyone on board here. I like setting goals and I certainly want to be part of the solution, and not contribute to the problem,’ said Thacker.

Sitting in his office, situated upstairs in a corner of the building serving as his church, Thacker looks over a desktop that includes some of his research materials — a book titled ‘Toxic Charity’ and a newspaper clipping titled ‘LePage: Transaction records show welfare cards abused.’

‘I knew there were different things happening here or there, very seldom things. And really, the last six months, began to see signs that there could very well be some more enabling going on. And then, with the Thanksgiving basket piece, and the three families in one week (not related at all) that brought to my attention how I was there to bail them out of a troublesome situation that they got themselves into,’ he said.

‘It moved me, to say the least. You’re talking 10-plus years of trying to help, kind of not worrying about the reason but just meeting the need,’ noted Thacker. ‘This opened my eyes to the enabling piece, the entitlement, the amount of money that’s lost by just giving, giving, giving, and not equipping people with the skills.’

Thacker knew that this enabling aspect is not something new. However, he admitted, ‘I just didn’t realize how big it is, until now.’

Food pantry to educate their clients

RUMFORD — When the food pantry at Praise Assembly of God, which is in the midst of a three-week shutdown, reopens Feb. 11, they will offer education that could better the lives of their patrons.

‘I want to be able to help people, not just with the material things, but I want to teach them to fish, rather than just give it to them. And that takes time. Going into the home, restructuring things. A lot of our families were not raised in a good home, so there’s a lot of brokenness and pain. They’re not sure how to live healthy lives,’ noted Pastor Justin Thacker.

He said they needed to shut down the food pantry Jan. 21 ‘because our staff here was getting frustrated with people and the amount of deceit. Something it’s affects your mood and professionalism; I want us to be polite and I want us to be professional. I don’t want us to be snappy with people.’

‘A family will come in one week and now there’s a breakup, and the lady is with another guy, and the guy is with another lady, and they come back in because they took all my food. All those emotions and relationship breakdowns and all this other stuff. So and so got arrested and now I don’t get their food stamps. We’re hungry. All these things we hear. It was just beginn ing to overwhelm our volunteers,’ noted Thacker.

When they open the food pantry, it will be with reduced hours. It will be Thursdays only from 9 a.m. to noon.

‘What we’re going to do, rather than just give the food, every hour, I’m going to give a lesson, or have someone like River Valley Healthy Communities, come and give healthy meal suggestions. This is to begin educating them. I know some people will be upset with that; I’ve already gotten some flack from the consuming base. Some folks are being really mean to us right now because we’re wanting to enbetter people, not just give the food,’ said Thacker.

‘The theme is still to help people. I definitely want to educate people on things like healthy foods, exercising, building morale, work ethic, integrity, all those kinds of things — as well as feed people,’ he said.

Thacker said he’s talked to people off the record who have suffered through alcoholism, pill addictions, etc. ‘to try to get into their mindset of how they deceived me, or how they used the church and the food pantry, and other food pantries and other agencies, like the town general assistance office, just to survive or to keep their habit going.’

He said he knows that the average family receiving assistance from the state gets about $425 to $450 per month in food stamps, as cited in a recent news article. Thacker is waiting for word from the state on more localized figures for the River Valley.

‘I found out from one of the people I work with that weed is going for $85 for about a four-day supply, and people that are using that, that’s going to take a lot of money, and it’s addictive, so they’re going to need that. How can I get that? What do I have that’s appealing and I know that food stamps is the big one. I’m not just pulling that out of a hat. I know that’s happening because I’ve built relationships with these folks and am trying to help these folks,’ said Thacker.

He observed that over the last year or so, people have begun to rat other people out, ”saying so and so is taking advantage of your food pantry pastor and I don’t think that’s very fair, and so I just want you to know.” An example was where a couple said they had split up, when it face they hadn’t. The plan was so that both could come down and get items from the food pantry and double up on the allotment.

Thacker said he had taken a call just that morning of a woman ratting out someone. He guessed that maybe a quarter of those they are helping could be taking advantage.

This food pantry serves 70 families, which breaks down to about 240 people per month.

‘It’s quite a few. It’s not as many as Mexico or Peru, but we just take offerings. That’s our source for the food, so we’re not able to do as many.’

As it is, Thacker said they can’t keep food on the food pantry shelves for what they’re doing now.

‘If you have a need, come on in and we’ll help you once a month at the food pantry. But the one thing about me is that usually I’ll build a relationship with someone and then help tutor their child and I’ll help marital counseling, financial counseling or its court-mandated counseling, whatever it might be, and get to know these families. It becomes personal,’ he said.

‘A lot of those families I meet through the food pantry. A lot of the children I know in local schools I know from trying to help them through their family. So it’s not like I can speculate on the unfortunate behaviors that are taking place,’ said Thacker.

‘Before you get the food, we would like to educate you on healthy living as much as we can, and use the different agencies to help us.’

Thacker said he will speak on morale and self-motivation to ‘try to build up the confidence of people as well,’he said.

He said the only exception to that will be to meet emergency situations as they hear about them.

They will be also be sharing the education on their facebook site Praise Assembly of God, Rumford.

‘I’ve been here almost 11 years and children I worked with 10 years ago are now having children themselves, and the cycle is repeating itself. That’s all there is, and that produces low morale, low self-confidence, a lack of a desire to get an education, to complete and education, even if that’s a high school diploma or GED,’ Thacker said.

‘I’m an optimist. I want to build people up. The phone has rung four times since we starting talking. The people that are calling; I’m thinking as I call them back, I’m going to need to build them up today, that they can be successful, that they can overcome different things. They don’t have to settle for drug uses. They don’t have to settle for idleness. They can succeed and set goals,’ he said.

There are people who use the food pantry for the short term and for the right reasons, and often give back later on.

Thacker said, ‘We just had a great story where a lady came and donated her time to clean the chairs down in the sanctuary with the lint brush and all that, then donated $100 because we had helped her eight months ago when she was going through a difficult time.’

‘Those are wonderful stories and we certainly want to keep helping people who lose their job at the mill, or whatever the case may be. It’s just that we want to stop enabling, if at all possible,’ he said.

‘I’m sure all the agencies have success stories, and those stories that need to be heard and used as an example to help other people. There are many folks here who have seen their heart change; ‘I can work. I have two hands. I may not be the most educated person in the world, but all work is honorable,” said Thacker.

Will food pantries adopt criteria where some of these people will be turned away?

‘No,’ said Thacker. ‘We’re not going to turn anyone away. There will be no litmus test. We’re simply going to educate and then give the food. But my hope is that a little education will go a long way, give someone something to think about, and if they’re truly in need, they’ll say, ‘You know what? To get the $30 worth of groceries, I can give 15 minutes of my time and listen to this and maybe it will help me,’ rather than just give it and send them on their way.’

‘Some people will view this as a litmus test, but when you see people dying prematurely, where you see firsthand, whether it’s a suicide or overdose, or people running into problems with the law, or major family problems, which does or does not include DHS, and these things that are going on and you hear and see the brokenness and the pain in children hurting — something has to be done. We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing, and it’s just worse because we have more food pantries now. We have more agencies here that are helping people than 11 years ago when I came. But the problem just seems to be geting worse and worse. There seems to be less and less money, and more and more problems, but our population has decreased in 11 years,’ said Thacker.

‘Just doing the math, something is amiss. I want to see Rumford become that healthy town we once were. As President Reagan said, ‘We’re only as good as our people.’ And so the River Valley is only as good as our people. And we have to invest and build up our people as much as we can,’ he noted.

Thacker, who ran for representative earlier, assured that he does not intend to run for office again. He said his mission is to help people, but he doesn’t mind utilizing government when he can as part of that effort.

‘My hope is we’ll send a message to the town and that this education will carry on beyond the doors of the church. I want to be a trend setter for other agencies, even government agencies,’ he said.

Forum to address helping vs. enabling

RUMFORD — An astounding 27 percent of local families are utilizing food pantries in Dixfield, Peru, Rumford and Mexico, according to Pastor Justin Thacker of the Praise Assembly of God, adding that some of those numbers do not reflect repeats at pantries.

Thacker said he took the food pantry numbers reflected from newspaper articles, got population figures from town offices, and did the math.

‘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,’ he said.

To that end, Thacker is organizing a forum on Thursday, Feb. 6 at the church at 89 Congress St.

He has invited the local food pantries, local police and agencies like to Rumford Group Homes, River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition, Hope Association, Common Grounds Counseling in Mexico, Tri-County Mental Health, Oxford County Mental Health. ‘We’ve invited all the people who work first hand with adults and kids that are in the front lines with folks that are in need.’

‘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.

The forum will begin with a noon lunch. At 12:30 p.m., there will be introductions with brief description of services provided. At 1 will be discussion on the topic, ‘How to serve our community as a team.’ At 2 will be a one-hour discuss ion on the topic, ‘Helping versus enabling.’

People are already responding. People are already planning to come. But the comments I’ve had on the phone or in person have been ‘Yeah, we need to do something. There’s a high turnover ratio of employees because they get burned out. A high turnover ratio of volunteers because of burnout, not getting anywhere or getting deceived themselves by the client or by the family, or the frustration,’ said Thacker.

As a followup, a second forum is planning for sometime in March with the general public.

Thacker is asking interested people to RSVP by Tuesday. For more information, call 364-3856 or 357- 4748.

At the forum, Thacker said he hopes to share education on what he has learned over a decade of helping families in the area.

Regarding the education, Thacker noted there has also been great feedback, ‘especially when I explain to them that it’s not going to a religious service. We want to come together as a community. We’ve just the ones hosting it. It’s no different that if the general assistance office was hosting something.’

Thacker said he taught school for seven years, ‘so education is very important to me. So let’s bring these other agencies in, let’s work together and see if we can do it.’

‘Let’s look at the fact that maybe 25 percent of the 27 percent of the families that we’re helping in this River Valley, maybe we can be aware of what’s going on. Maybe we can improve education. Maybe there are a lot of genuine people that we’re not able to help as much that are in need because we don’t have the food because 25 percent came over here and deceived us or whatever,’ he said.

In talking to other area food pantries, Thacker likes that one talked about doing spot checks on clients. ‘I think that’s a great idea, especially for food pantries that don’t work personally with folks. I think they’ll find that there’s good people out there who are in need. I think they’ll also find that there’s some deceit going on, some below-board things that are taking place.’

He realizes that volunteers from the food pantries will probably indicate that they don’t have the time to follow up on these people.

‘That’s where I want to be able to say that you don’t have to. Please trust me in what’s going on because I have taken the time. That’s what I love to do. I work 60 to 70 hours a week with families and I’m at the frontlines with them. I know this is going on and we need to take a look at the fact that, for example, 85 percent of our children are on free and reduced lunch at RES (Rumford Elementary Schoo). So we know they’re getting breakfast and lunch. So all parents have to do is supply dinner and a snack, maybe, and the weekends. And RES does a summer program as well. And children are still coming in hungry. I’ve learned the reason that is is because the food stamps have been sold somewhere or whatever and there’s not the food there. So maybe the government is not the blame as much as we think. Maybe the economy is not the blame as much as we think. Maybe, there’s misuse that’s taking place,’ said Thacker.

He pointed to a news article that indicates adults are spending this money at adult clubs, casinos. ‘And even going to the convenience stores to buy a big sandwich, which is $8. You could buy a loaf of bread and two big packs of meat for that price and have yourself 10 sandwiches. But currently the law allows them to do that, or a lot of the business owners sometimes will put under the register as miscellaneous items, but it’s something they shouldn’t be buying, but they need the money. It’s all about survival in a bad economy. If the average family of four in Maine is receiving $450 in food stamps per month. That’s a good amount of food.’

Some would say that that’s not enough to get them through the whole month. ‘That’s why we want to educate folks to buy healthier meals at an affordable price rather than the bags of Doritos and these other things. But if you’re kids are getting breakfast and lunch, $450 should buy dinners and snacks, I would think, with the other aid that’s received, unless there’s other things that are happening,’ said Thacker.

‘I don’t want to be here when I’m 45 years old (another 10 years) and see either a completely deserted town or to see so much pain, because I’ve seen it change so much in the 11 years I’ve been here. We can have a thriving economy, if you will, with stores and buildings looking beautiful, but if our people are hurting, we can’t expect a miracle out of people who are hurting. They need to be reached, revived and motivated. Tourism is important, but I care about the people who are here,’ he said.

‘When you do funerals, it has an impact on your life, like Friday’s funeral (Jane Jacques) will have an impact on my life; 37 years old, gone too soon. But I’ve had a lot of other funerals, caused by life’s choices and it sticks with you. I know this is where I’m supposed to be, in Rumford and this area, and try to help people as much as we can, truly help them, not enable them, and education is the foundation for that,’ Thacker said.

‘I don’t want to bury any more people because of overdose or something difficult and in the back of my mind, wonder, did I contribute to that? I’m going to do all I can to make sure that doesn’t happen,’ he noted.

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