Evan Jewell goes over the inventory of meals before service hours at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Courtesy photo

WESTBROOK —  The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on My Place Teen Center and its donors, and it needs monetary donations to stay alive when the crisis is over, the director says.

“Funding is what we need. That’s blunt, but it allows us to direct the resources the best way we see fit,” Director Donna Dwyer said last week. 

The teen center moved quickly to expand its free meal service to the community at large when the pandemic hit, offering meals to families, seniors and anyone else in need. But it’s not just the additional costs of serving hundreds of more meals per week that is financially impacting the center,  Dwyer said. Regular donations are down as well because benefactors are feeling their own impacts from the coronavirus.

Under normal conditions, the kitchen staff provides 200 meals a week to the youth ages 10-18 who attend its free programs and activities. For the past five weeks, four staffers have been preparing family-size dinners Monday through Friday. The number of those meals last week rose to more than 600, Dwyer said. The center also provides about 150 snack kits a week.

“In early March, we pivoted very quickly. I don’t think that we had a lot of thought initially on what we were doing, we just responded to the need,” Dwyer said.

Joe Jimino loads meals into the My Place Teen Center van for delivery to families. Courtesy photo

“Food was a way we could help, we knew that we wanted to still be in the community, letting kids know we cared about them, and we had an inkling then it would grow broader beyond our kids, and it has,”  Dwyer said.

While this year’s operating budget is about $880,000,  seven major donors they rely on to maintain operations have recently backed out.

“We fundraise 49 weeks out of 52 weeks of the year, and when there are weeks we are not able to receive any funding, we can’t do the job we need to do, that’s a loss. We saw volatility in January when this started, and when (the pandemic) hit we were slammed by a Mack truck, as we knew our funding would dry up,” Dwyer said.

By this time in 2019, MPTC had 75% of its revenue for the year in hand. This year, with a larger budget for added programs, it has received only 62% because of donors dropping out. The organization is down $114,000 from where it expected to be at this date, Dwyer said, and that shortfall could grow with “continued market volatility.” Dwyer said.

We started to see a funding decline in January when the markets became volatile and then, wham! This happened. So just when we’re needed the absolute most, and the need continues to grow, we are receiving the least support,” Dwyer said.

She declined to say which donors have withdrawn their support, but said some have been “major.”

“We just recently received a letter from another donor explaining they are redirecting their money to pandemic relief, but the thing is, that is exactly what we are doing now,” Dwyer said.

Meanwhile, the My Place Teen Center staff is also doing mental-health checkups with its young members daily by phone or in person with social distancing.

The center plays a vital role in the community, said Westbrook School Superintendent Peter Lancia.

“My Place Teen Center is such a valuable resource for our teenagers. They do much more than provide a meal every night. They provide comfort, encouragement, and consistency through their programs and space,” he said.

The center’s operations have been deemed essential by the state under the emergency orders, but Dwyer says it’s increasingly difficult to provide them. The staff is working long weeks to meet the need, she said.

“We are working much longer hours, 55-60 hours weeks, our workload is way more intense and our constituents have broadened,” Dwyer said.

Cooking each day takes about six hours. Dwyer said they have not calculated the cost of each meal as the menu changes daily. The meal one day last week, for example, included barbecue chicken, baked beans, barley, roasted broccoli and snap peas. While many of the meals are picked up curbside, it takes an additional four hours to deliver the rest. Then there is the time needed to stay in contact with the kids, she said.

“It’s hard. We have the kids calling me three to four times a day, saying they are hungry, asking for us to come. We are only on week four,” Dwyer said last week. “The thing that people have to understand is, if we are fortunate we have another month of this, but these people have maybe a day or two before they are down to nothing,” Dwyer said.

The center can’t take on more volunteers out of concern of spreading the coronavirus among the staff, which would close down operations, she said.

The teen center needs money to keep up at this time, she said, with concerns that financial struggles now may mean closing their doors in the coming months

Long term, we have to manage the crisis of how you manage a 22-year-old organization if the funding streams dry up. Where will it be if people stop giving, and the irony of social services is that when things are bad, which they are, social service needs are off the chart, and yet the funding becomes more scarce. Our need grows, and yet we have to look if we have what it takes to stay open three months from now,” Dwyer said.

Hannaford has been donating to-go boxes, but there are a lot of supplies we need, and the operating costs of the van, deliveries,” Dwyer said.

“We just want to make this a zero barrier community help project,” she said.

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