SACO – Paul Lavallee was excited to find a pair of sturdy winter boots among the donated clothing on a table at the First Parish Congregational Church on Monday.
The unemployed Saco resident also got his hair cut, did laundry and got worked on by a chiropractor as he made his way through the busy church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Continuing its tradition of turning the holiday into “a day on, not a day off,” the church opened its doors Monday to give free help to people who are homeless or otherwise struggling.
The annual day of service offered hot meals, use of the church’s laundry and shower facilities, free clothing, haircuts and a variety of health screenings.
Lavallee, who moved to Saco from Florida in July, was laid off from his restaurant job in September. Since then, he has relied on rental assistance and food stamps while looking for work.
“I’m just surviving,” he said. “Things like laundry and haircuts is money I have to come up with. These are all things you put on the back burner when you’re laid off.”
“This,” he said as he picked up a bag of clothing, “is like Christmastime.”
For the past five years, the church has rallied volunteers – many of them Thornton Academy students — to help with the event and spread out across the community to volunteer with other service organizations.
By mid-morning Monday, about 50 volunteers were at the church to welcome and assist guests. More than 35 guests showed up for the event — far more than the dozen or so who attended the first two years, during large snowstorms, said Kris Galasyn, education director for the church.
Galasyn, who helps coordinate volunteers and donations, said she is guided by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “What are you doing for others?”
“That’s what I think the day should be all about,” she said, as people chatted nearby over breakfast cooked and served by volunteers.
On an upper floor of the church, volunteers sorted through donated items and helped guests find clothing in their size. Maranda Provost of Biddeford decided to volunteer with her mother, Dawne, because it makes her sad to see people who are homeless.
“It makes me feel good to help people,” she said.
The Rev. Diane Wendorf of Sanford North Parish UCC came with a group of 20 volunteers, including youth group members from churches in Sanford, Acton and Alfred. They sorted toiletries, bagged pairs of new socks and sanitized toys in a playroom.
“If we could do this all the time, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
The Rev. Doug Nielsen, the church’s senior minister, said the event provides guests with needed goods and services, and interaction with people who care. He spent much of the day speaking with people who walked through the doors.
“A lot of people are hungry for a lot of things, food being only one of them. People want human contact,” he said. “We’re taking our faith experience and putting it into action.”
Nielsen said he was struck by guests’ “sense of wonder” and appreciation.
Jennie Powell of Biddeford came with family members and watched her son-in-law get his hair cut as she described how thankful she was to receive health screenings and new toiletries and socks. She also planned to get a flu shot and replace the mittens she lost recently with a hand-knit pair.
“I think it’s so wonderful for the community. Every little bit helps,” she said. “When we come in, we have big smiles on our faces.”
Chuck Parker of Biddeford, who is on disability after working for the past 15 years, heard about the event through the Stone Soup Food Pantry. He said he was thankful to be able to pick up new items for his family that are hard to afford on a fixed income.
“You have to feel more than grateful,” he said.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:
MARTIN’S BIG WORDS: TELEVISION: A family-friendly, cross-cultural event at Ocean Avenue school. B3