Tonya J. Sands Submitted photo

Need is up, meals are up, and Tonya Sands is there.

The shelter manager at the Trinity Jubilee Center and Lewiston native is on the front lines helping people who are homeless, need food help or just need a hand filing unemployment applications.

Averaging 80 hours a week at two different jobs, she’s still finding everyday bright spots and looking ahead to sunnier days.

Name: Tonya J. Sands

Age: 42

Lives: Lewiston


What was the career path that led you to the Trinity Jubilee Center? I have always had a passion for serving my community and working with people in crisis. I’ve overcome difficult obstacles in my path and have an understanding of what many people experience. I moved out of Lewiston for 10 years. When I saw the position posted, I took the opportunity to return home. Being away from my friends, family and familiar faces in the community weighed heavily on me and my children. I had also volunteered at Trinity as an Americorps member several years ago. The center was one of my favorite volunteer sites.

Biggest everyday challenge, pre-pandemic? Having enough volunteers in our office and kitchen to easily meet clients’ needs. We cook so much food and help so many people apply for jobs and we were always rushing to get food into the ovens on time, or we’re in the office trying to help someone write a resume and give someone else a pair of socks and answer the phone, all at the same time. During this pandemic, we chose to keep everyone safe and are not allowing volunteers in the building. The workload is heavy and we are short-staffed. Our team is dynamic. We go above and beyond each day and do the best we can.

Biggest reward, pre-pandemic? Seeing a smile on the face of a person who feels lost, at their lowest point. Simple things such as a conversation, food, a winter coat, soap, a safe place to receive mail, help with a job application etc., can change a person’s view of their life and the people around them. They’re thankful that someone knows their name and listens to them. I like connecting with people, especially those that are experiencing difficult times.

How many people is the center serving these days compared to this time last year? In March 2019, we served 2,615 meals. In March 2020, we served 3,702 meals. We went from averaging 101 plates per day to averaging 142 plates per day. We’ve served more than 6,000 bagged lunches since the pandemic began.

Most common needs you’re seeing? Food, assistance with unemployment applications and masks to keep people safe. Sometimes our lunch line stretches out the gate, up the sidewalk and around the block. We’re also providing 30 meals each day for elderly people who can’t leave their homes. And the phone in our office rings all day long with people calling to ask for help applying for unemployment or filing weekly claims or understanding why their benefits haven’t been issued. A lot of people don’t have computers and they can’t do this by themselves. People are so relieved to get food and to get unemployment so that they can pay their rent.

Has there been a bright spot in all of this? Today, I checked in with a homeless client to see if he was doing OK. He said he was surprised that someone cares enough about him to ask and he was so appreciative that I took a few minutes to talk to him. Yesterday, another homeless woman came to the door wearing only a T-shirt. She was freezing and I gave her a sweatshirt. She came back today wearing it and said she had slept in it and it kept her very warm. She was so happy.

Last week, a young man gave me a handpicked flower and thanked me for being nice to him. When we get food deliveries, the homeless people using our shelter will jump up to help bring in donations. These things happen here every day, even when there isn’t a pandemic. But we have been seeing new people recently and people who are struggling even more. They are so grateful that we’re still open and we can give them food for their kids. Other people are sending us kind notes to cheer us on and tell us they see the difference we’re making and that feels good. Last week a little girl sponsored a meal for her 8th birthday. Her kind gesture gave lunch to 161 people.

A portal suddenly appears in Kennedy Park. You step in. You’re transported to a remote Maine island for one week with no responsibilities. What three things do you do? I would lay in the sand, listening to the waves with the sun beaming on my face. Later I would collect sand dollars and sea glass and take photos of the scenery. Since COVID-19, I have not had a moment to relax, be out in nature and breathe fresh air. I’m working two jobs, averaging almost 80 hours a week. Some days I wear a mask for 16 hours a day. One of my favorite places in Maine is Popham Beach. This is where I’ll be when it is safe to remove our masks.

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