Preble Street in Portland marks four decades of ‘kindness, justice and fairness’ in fighting hunger and homelessness.

It was the mid-1970s when Joe Kreisler, a social work professor at the University of Southern Maine, hatched the idea that his students should have meaningful, hands-on internships working with people struggling with homelessness, hunger and poverty.

In the early years, Preble Street was almost entirely run by student interns. Today, 240 people work at the social service agency. Another 40,000 people contribute to Preble Street’s mission, whether they volunteer their time, send a check or donate food or supplies. The vast support network includes dozens of law firms and scores of faith-based communities.

Over 300 people attended the nonprofit’s 40th annual dinner this past week at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland.

“It truly is an inspiring event,” said Janet Henry, former director of the Maine Philanthropy Center.

The Volunteer of the Year Award was presented to a group of people who had to leave early to catch the last ferry back to Great Diamond Island. During winter, it’s said, the island sends nearly 10 percent of its population to volunteer at Preble Street – just regular people looking out for less fortunate people across Casco Bay.

Another regular person who did something extraordinary is Jack Dodson, a volunteer from Topsham who created a video tribute to Preble Street that received a standing ovation.

“The video brought it all together,” said board member Terry Sutton. “I was about to cry … seeing people talking about changing the world.”

“You can’t find three hours where you’ll be so deeply moved, down to your toes,” said board member Elaine Rosen of the rewards of volunteering at Preble Street.

“Forty years is a long time,” said Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director. “We’ve helped a lot of people, and we’ve got a lot of people here celebrating great work.”

“I’ve always enjoyed going to the annual meetings and described them as love-ins,” said Peter Darvin, who quipped that his qualification for becoming the first board president was simply wearing a suit. He compared the first-year budget of $10,000 to this year’s $10 million for a much larger array of programs and services.

But, as both Darvin and Swann said, being able to serve more and more homeless people isn’t the goal. Preble Street will be most successful when it is no longer needed.

“It’s more than a little impressive, what you do,” said Dennis Marble, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, honored with the 2015 Joe Kreisler Community Impact Award. “It’s an unbelievably intricate, delicate dance.”

Two important Preble Street programs are also celebrating significant milestones this year. Homeless Voices for Justice, a grassroots advocacy group led by people who have experienced homelessness, is marking 20 years of speaking up for social change. Ten years ago, Logan Place, a partnership between Preble Street and Avesta Housing, began providing permanent housing to some of the city’s former homeless people.

“Here we have 40 years of struggle and have never given up,” said 14-year staff member Elena Schmidt. Even as chief development officer, Schmidt appreciated that the evening was not at all about money. “It’s celebrating what’s really important – kindness, justice and fairness,” she said.

And it was an evening for honoring those who exemplify those traits, including Force for Good Award recipient Bill Nemitz.

Swann praised the Portland Press Herald columnist, calling him a champion of “economic and social justice” who isn’t afraid to “call out public officials.”

“He writes human interest stories that remind us how human we are,” Swann said. “Readers get a glimpse into lives different from their own.”

“What makes this honor so profound for me,” Nemitz said, “is to spend this entire evening with people who gauge their self-worth by what they give” as opposed to “what they can hold onto.”

To combat grumblings about “the people on welfare” and “the illegals,” he said, the key is to “get them to imagine themselves in line at Preble Street.” And then the illusion of difference is shattered.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough. She can be contacted at:

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