ALFRED — Megan Gean-Gendron’s first day as executive director of York County Shelter Programs was surreal.

She flashed back to the days she would run around the shelter while her father worked as its executive director, to the nights she served pasta at weekly fundraising dinners, and to the people whose stories of overcoming challenges inspired her.

“I don’t remember a day when this agency was not a central fixture in our family,” she said. “I grew up right along with the agency. My parents joke that when I was younger I said I wanted to be the first female governor of Maine or the executive director of the shelter. It was work that spoke to me young.”

Gean-Gendron was appointed executive director of the agency in December after previous director Bob Dawber resigned. In her new role, she is following in the footsteps of her father, Don Gean, who is credited with transforming the agency before his retirement in 2014.

The 41-year-old nonprofit started as a shelter in a former jail and has evolved over the past 35 years into a agency that provides emergency shelter, food, vocational training, mental and substance abuse treatment, and a pathway to homeownership. It is the only emergency shelter in York County.

“It’s an honor to continue what (my father) built over 30 years of an incredible career,” Gean-Gendron said.

The agency had an annual budget of $5.4 million in 2018, according to its most recent tax filing. The agency provides shelter to more than 700 people each year and feeds 3,000 people each month through its food pantry. It operates an emergency shelter for adults in Alfred and for families in Sanford and owns more than 100 housing units in southern Maine.

Gean-Gendron joins the agency at a time when fundraising is difficult, but when there are new opportunities to provide substance abuse treatment through a partnership with the county. She also sees opportunities to provide more services to combat hunger, counter stigmas about homelessness and expand the nonprofit’s use of renewable energy.

Megan Gean-Gendron, photographed Friday in her office in Alfred, said, “I don’t remember a day when this agency was not a central fixture in our family. … I grew up right along with the agency.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Gean-Gendron, 39, was director of development and public relations for the agency from 2013 to 2016. She spent the next three years working as a political consultant, including work on national fundraising for Gov. Janet Mills’ campaign.

After Dawber resigned from the agency last fall, board President Clay Graybeal was filling in as executive director. A colleague suggested he meet with Gean-Gendron to talk about coming back to the shelter and he said he was immediately impressed by both her commitment to the shelter’s mission and to her knowledge of both the agency and state and local policies.

“It’s an unusual combination,” he said. “The entire board is feeling optimistic about moving forward and that Megan is the right person at the right time to help us do that.”

Gean-Gendron grew up in Alfred and graduated from Massabesic High School and the University of Southern Maine. As a child, she spent countless hours on Shaker Hill volunteering at the shelter or helping at fundraising events alongside her parents and siblings. On Friday nights, she would help at the Mama Mia pasta suppers, held upstairs from her current office.

Gean-Gendron saw her father as a superhero who was able to swoop in and help people, but with that came tough lessons. Her parents were intentional in teaching their children that everyone did not have the same safety net they did and that there is nothing abnormal about needing to use a homeless shelter, she said.

“I learned so early – and it’s one of the lessons I’m most thankful for – that until you walk in someone’s shoes, you can’t judge them,” she said. “You never know where someone is coming from. You never know what kindness might mean to a single person on a given day. It was a pretty incredible way to grow up, where everything is centered on helping people be the best version of themselves, whatever that may be.”

Gean-Gendron said that early exposure to the shelter and people who used it helped her understand that people are not defined by their homelessness. That’s a lesson she tries to pass on to others to fight the stigma that remains attached to homelessness, though she also sees that stigma lessening in recent years.

She sees addressing that stigma and helping people understand the need for resources as central to fundraising, which remains a challenge for the agency. In 2017, the agency took in about $1.8 million in contributions and grants, a decrease of more than $1.1 million from the year before, according to tax filings.

Graybeal, the board president, said changes in the tax code a couple years ago have made it harder for nonprofit agencies to raise money because everyone now gets the same exemption regardless of how much they give. He believes Gean-Gendron’s fundraising experience will be particularly helpful for York County Shelter Programs.

Gean-Gendron said she plans to focus on developing a comprehensive plan “to move forward as stewards of the environment while housing hundreds and hundreds of people and utilizing what we have here on Shaker Hill.”

“We have an incredible opportunity to become a food hub. We also have an incredible opportunity to surround everyone up here on the hill with housing, food, stability and services,” she said. “Planning in a comprehensive way how we go about implementing that is daunting, but also very exciting.”

Gean-Gendron would like to continue to look at utilizing solar and alternative forms of energy at the shelter and in its housing units across York County. The agency secured special permission from the Public Utilities Commission to use electric heat in its public housing units so they can be heated entirely by electricity generated by a solar array at the agency’s Angers Farm in Newfield.

A two-year-old partnership with county government to run the 24-bed Layman Way Recovery Center presents another exciting opportunity for the agency, Gean-Gendron said. The only county-run recovery program in the state, Layman Way provides addiction treatment services for individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system.

“It’s an incredible partnership with the county,” she said.

Gean-Gendron said she wants her work to build on and continue the legacy started by her father when he went to work for the shelter in 1985.

“I figure if I can focus on doing right by the people we serve and really staying true to the idea that every person deserves a chance to succeed, then I will do it justice somewhat,” she said. “No one is ever going to fill his shoes. Those are hard footsteps to follow.”

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