LEWISTON — In four weeks, Just-in-Time Recreation has collected hundreds of food items, two bikes and several hundred dollars to donate to The Store Next Door, a nonprofit organization supporting Lewiston’s homeless youth and parenting teens.

Tom Giberti, the former longtime manager of the bowling alley previously known as Sparetime Recreation, came up with the idea to run a fun, eight-week bowling league Wednesday nights. Participants are required to bring at least two food items each week, but sometimes they donate cash instead.

Soon, bowlers in other leagues were also contributing to the food collection.

“It snowballed, we never expected this,” Giberti said. “I went to all the other leagues, told them what we were doing and said ‘we’d love you to be part of it. So, everybody started bringing in food or cash money.”

Giberti and owner Samantha Juray have created six Christmas meal packages and intend to make two more. Each container will include a $25 gift card for either Hannaford or Shaw’s in addition to a $25 gift card for the Italian Bakery in Lewiston. The money will allow families to purchase perishable foods, such as a turkey or ham, and dessert for the meal.

Just-in-Time Recreation owner Samantha Juray and former General Manager Tom Giberti have collected hundreds of food items and two bicycles to donate to Lewiston students in need. Vanessa Paolella/Sun Journal

Lewiston school district’s homeless youth advocate, Jamie Caouette, said the meal packages will have a greater significance to students than just having food to eat. Many homeless students temporarily stay in a series of different homes or are taken in by families who are already in need.

“A lot of my students, they want to be able to give something to whoever is helping them,” said Caouette, who runs The Store Next Door. “Anybody who donates and gives to them, they’re extremely grateful because they don’t have anything to give . . . they don’t have the means to be able to give back, and if they can walk up with a box and give it to someone they’re staying with, to them that’s like paying for letting them stay there.”

The rest of the loose food items will be available for students to grab when they visit The Store Next Door.

“Food pantries are running low and there’s not a lot of options in the community,” Caouette said. “COVID really messed up a lot with people being able to get donations and community resources. A lot of things have shut down, there’s not a lot of resources out there.”

At least 52 Lewiston High School students struggle with homelessness, Caouette said, but she was unsure of the total number of students in the district.

“The numbers are forever changing,” she said. “These are kids that we just know about. Another thing is we don’t know about all the kids, because no one really wants to talk about homelessness and a lot of the time they want to hide it because they’re scared they might get in trouble or someone’s going to call (the Department of Health and Human Services).”

Just-in-Time’s partnership with The Store Next Door won’t end with the food drive. Already, they are talking about other ways the bowling alley can support Lewiston’s homeless youth.

“The homeless needs are clothing and shelter, but with the holidays here it’s (also) about trying to put some spirit into the kids,” said Ronald Potvin, a regular at Just-in-Time and the treasurer for The Store Next Door. “We’re talking about hosting a holiday party here at the bowling alley that we can bring the kids in and give them some fun to do.”

“They never really get to do anything fun,” Caouette said. “They don’t have transportation or extra money, they’re always trying to worry about ‘how am I going to get my next meal’ or ‘how am I going to get my clothes washed’ or ‘how am I going to take a shower,’ all the basic stuff that we take for granted.”

Giberti and Juray may also put up a Christmas tree to encourage bowlers to donate gifts, Giberti said. In January, he expects they will start a new collection drive, possibly for winter items such as hats, mittens and blankets.

Caouette said blankets are especially sought: “Any time we have blankets downstairs (in The Store Next Door), the kids take them right away because we don’t know where they’re staying. Sometimes they stay in abandoned buildings with no electricity or anything, so blankets are huge, sleeping bags, (too).”

The Store Next Door is always in need of food, toiletries, new clothing, blankets, and more. Anyone who would like more information should call the store at 207-755-7252 or email Caouette at [email protected]

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