Even before he prepared the first dinner in the new kitchen at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Portland, Richard Blair was looking forward to whipping up special holiday meals.

He has big plans for Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas dinners. There will be dozens of sugar cookies and gingerbread men to bake. He and the kitchen staff will string popcorn and cranberries to hang as decorations.

But first – and most importantly for Blair – there will be three meals a day to cook and share with the men who live and work at the center while they focus on rebuilding their lives and overcoming addiction to alcohol or drugs.

“It’s good brotherhood and we can be together,” said Blair, the kitchen supervisor and an alumnus of the program.

The Adult Rehabilitation Center on Friday opened its new $2 million kitchen and dining area, the first major modern upgrade to the building at the corner of Preble and Lancaster streets that for 60 years has housed the Salvation Army program. The 4,000-square-foot dining hall addition replaces the third-floor dining area, which will be converted to a community room and an apartment.

Kitchen supervisor Richard Blair prepares pans before a donor event at the new kitchen and dining room at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation center in Portland on Friday. Staff photo by Ariana van den Akker

Maj. Judi Bernardi, administrator for the program, said the project was three years in the making and will allow everyone in the program to dine together instead of in shifts, which was necessary when the rehabilitation center reached its capacity of 70 men. The kitchen had not been updated in more than 20 years.

“It makes me happy the men will be able to all sit at the same time,” Bernardi said. “This is going to make it easier for our cooks to feed our men well.”

The Adult Rehabilitation Center in Portland provides free shelter, food, clothing and counseling to men who are struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. All beneficiaries of the program also participate in worship services, Bible study and work therapy to prepare them to reconnect with the community, Bernardi said.

The program typically lasts six to nine months until the men are prepared to transition into sober living. The program uses no local, state or federal funding and is paid for through donated goods sold at Salvation Army family thrift stores.

“We are the best-kept secret as far as rehab goes,” Bernardi said. The program currently has beds available to men seeking rehabilitation.

Maj. Judi Bernardi, program administrator at the Salvation Army’s Portland Adult Rehabilitation Center, poses for a portrait in an office at the facility. Bernardi said the creation of a new dining hall and kitchen space was three years in the making. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

On Friday afternoon, employees and beneficiaries buzzed through the kitchen and attached dining room to put the finishing touches on trays of appetizers to serve at an open house. The dining area, with tall windows on three sides, was bright and airy, and opens to a fenced-in courtyard. The first dinner, prepared by Blair and others, was chicken roulade, asparagus with prosciutto, purple potatoes and salad.

Blair works with five or six men in the program who are assigned to cook for their work therapy. The kitchen has new equipment, including a char-broiler, which the workers have not used before. Blair said working in the new space will help them learn a trade they can use when they graduate from the program.

Blair arrived at the Adult Rehabilitation Center in August 2016 after being referred by Pen Bay Medical Center. A native of El Paso, Texas, he had been living in Knox County and struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Blair, 43, said he is the youngest of nine children who have all had addiction issues and credits the Salvation Army program with giving him the support to change his life. He graduated from the program and lives at the Preble Street building, where he also teaches classes and directs the choir.

The Adult Rehabilitation Center “saved my life. It changed everything I thought about life,” he said. “I grew up and started being a man again.”