BIDDEFORD – The sound of children playing and laughing echoed through the Joyful Harvest Neighborhood Center on Thursday afternoon as Shay Stewart-Bouley fought back tears.

“This place matters to kids,” she said. “The idea of losing it is hard to imagine.”

Stewart-Bouley, executive director of the nonprofit neighborhood center on Main Street, had announced hours earlier that, without additional financial support, Joyful Harvest will close its doors at the end of June.

Since 2001, Joyful Harvest has offered free after-school and summer programs to low-income and at-risk youth who otherwise may not have a safe and nurturing place to be. The center relies primarily on grants from private foundations for its $83,000 annual operating budget, a situation that is not sustainable for any nonprofit, Stewart-Bouley said.

The center needs at least $5,500 a month to remain open, she said.

Efforts to raise money through donations and fundraisers have been largely unsuccessful, she said, forcing the center to cut two paid staff positions. Stewart-Bouley and the board of directors have known for some time the center’s financial outlook was bleak, but had hoped to avoid having to announce a possible closure date.

“The reality is it’s been a long time coming,” Stewart-Bouley said. “It’s hard to get support when you’re in an area where most people don’t have a lot of money.”

Joyful Harvest is located downtown, within walking distance of some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods. It served a total of 592 kids last year, and 95 percent of them receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch at school, Stewart-Bouley said.

About 20 to 40 kids drop in during a typical day. For many, Joyful Harvest is a source of stability and structure they otherwise wouldn’t have, she said.

“If we’re not open, they’re going to be back out on the streets. We feel we’re giving them a safe place to come to,” said board member Dennis Anglea. “It’s a sense of community. We don’t want to lose that.”

Most of the kids at Joyful Harvest on Thursday did not yet know the center is in danger of closing. As 10-year-old Nicole Montpas made a doll out of popsicle sticks and tape, Stewart-Bouley told her the center needs more money to stay open.

“I’d feel really upset,” Montpas said about the prospect of Joyful Harvest closing. “It’s like we’re family here.”

Connie Ortolani, an advocate who works with a family whose children attend Joyful Harvest, said the center becomes a home away from home for many kids in the city. The family she works with is low-income and the children have no other options for after-school and educational enrichment activities.

“It becomes family to them immediately. They walk in and it’s like all the pressure is off their shoulders,” Ortolani said. “They’d be so heartsick if it closed.”

As other kids colored with chalk on the sidewalk or played air hockey, 6-year-old Molly Katanga finished her math homework and pulled up a cooking game on the computer. She turns 7 in a few weeks, the minimum age to go to Joyful Harvest, and just started attending with her older brother. She was excited to start because she likes to play with friends and have healthy snacks, she said.

“I just thought it would be fun,” she said.

Catherine Anglea, chairman of the board of directors and the former director of Joyful Harvest, said it is hard to think about taking away that kind of fun and structure from the children.

“We felt our hearts were just on the floor,” Anglea said of the decision to announce the pending closure.

Stewart-Bouley said she is “walking in faith” that the community will step up to help save the only program of its kind in the city.

“You realize you’re changing kids’ lives,” Stewart-Bouley said. “You’re opening the world up to them.”

 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 207-791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com