BETHEL — The homeless population of Portland received something they were not expecting on Valentine’s Day — gift packages of clothing, bedding and treats from two Bethel women.

Deirdre Fournier and Willow Ochtera saw a video about a similar homeless charity project and decided it was something they wanted to do. After making a Facebook group about their project to hand out Valentine’s Day goodies to the homeless population of Portland, Ochtera said the two just “dove right in.”

Crescent Park Elementary School took a special interest in their project, and many teachers made it a lesson in their classrooms. The local Girl Scouts joined in as well.

“What started out as two friends just wanting to do what they could grew into our community joining together and doing so much more,” Ochtera said. “Our community not only being the town of Bethel and surrounding area, but our friends and family from all over.”

Ochtera and Fournier accepted donations of hats, mittens, blankets, socks, pillows, treats and money to buy items. Additionally, they asked for valentines, homemade or bought, with words of encouragement inside.

By Feb. 14, the two women and their helpers had created 436 packages. Accompanied by their husbands, they visited six shelters and searched along the streets to reach homeless individuals.

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“We received such a positive reaction from the homeless community and staff at the various shelters,” Ochtera said. “Much of our success had to do with the great people that work in these places every day and know the homeless community and needs. They were valuable beyond words.

“We learned of some amazing work being done at the Florence House, Preble Street Resource Center, Preble Street Teen Center, Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, Opportunity Alliance and Amistad,” she said. “We hope people take the time to look into these great places and programs. We have learned that help is always needed and appreciated.”

Because of their “rewarding experience,” Ochtera said she and Fournier definitely plan to do it each year. They also want to bring awareness and knowledge of the struggles the homeless community faces, and the centers and people who are devoted to helping them.

“We have said many times that this has been a much-needed break from the negativity we all seem to be bombarded with on social media and in the news lately,” Ochtera said. “It started as a simple idea, with us not knowing what to expect but with the goal of brightening people’s day.

“Living in Maine with these harsh conditions, sometimes it’s still just as simple as staying warm and knowing someone is thinking of you,” she said. “One woman told us that we ‘turned a really bad day into a good one.’ That was the simple goal — and will remain our goal.” 

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Two couples from Bethel handed out gift packages to homeless people in Portland on Valentine’s Day, a project orchestrated by Deirdre Fournier and Willow Ochtera, both of Bethel. From left are Ron Fournier, Deirdre’s husband; Elizabeth Damon of Opportunity Alliance of South Portland; Deirdre Fournier; Willow Ochtera; and Willow’s husband, Jon Ochtera.

Deirdre Fournier and her husband, Ron, of Bethel, right, give a homeless man in Portland a package of clothing, bedding and other items on Valentine’s Day.

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