It was March, almost nine months ago, when no one knew much about how to deal with COVID-19. Six of us met at The Gathering Place to decide what we should do in view of what seemed to us — naively as it turned out — would be a short term problem to be sorted out in a matter of weeks. The six of us, Judy Bauman our president, Mary Connolly our executive director, Sally Hennessey, our director of volunteers, and three volunteers who had been at The Gathering Place since the beginning Phil, George and myself. After a few days, it became obvious that we would have to close down, at least for a little while. We put our building to bed, and we notified our guests of the need to shut down.

Many of them were terribly disappointed, as were we. Where were they going to be able to spend their days, to get the help we offer, where would the homeless spend the very coldest nights? As torn up as we were, we felt we had no choice; so many of our volunteers are elderly and could not risk being in crowds. We were unable to provide the necessary volunteers to do the many tasks needed. Nor had we made any of the physical and procedural changes that were vitally necessary to allow us to operate safely for our guests or volunteers. With heavy hearts, we closed the doors.

But, we weren’t ready to stay closed. We began to plan. The six of us have met every single Tuesday morning since, usually via Zoom, to plan how we could safely operate. A place where the guests could be safe and where they could be, in dignity. As of June 18, the governor’s regulations allowed us to reopen. We have been open since then- at first two days and later three days a week. But since the spring we have been in the process of making major changes and investments in order to meet regulations, and we have made more than that in order to make The Gathering Place a pleasant as well as a safe place to be.

At the time before COVID (we call it BC) a typical day at The Gathering Place involved receiving 80 to 100 guests, who spent time together, chatting, playing games, and receiving the advocacy services we offer, services they need and deserve to help them navigate the very complex web of services through which one may secure housing, healthcare, employment, transportation, furniture, etc.

By mid-spring, we had begun to develop an approach for opening and providing what we customarily offer. The difficulty was that because of six-foot state and federal social distancing requirements, we couldn’t accommodate many people. We then decided, and this was the crux of our plan, to move as much of our work outside as possible. Therefore when we opened on July 1, it was with much of what we do outside. Of course, with the height of summer, all that worked well, swimmingly in fact.

But with fall, and winter approaching, we needed to make major changes. And that we have done, with the help of generous donors. A grant from the Brunswick Rotary made it possible to purchase from Brunswick Awning a large awning that attaches to our building, and rolls up electrically at the end of the day. Willing helpers from the Rotary Club made major contributions to its installation. It provides us with a whole new area for seating, nearly as much seating as in the main room of our building. Recently we have completed what will completely transform the awning space. We have purchased, again through generous donor assistance, eight 4,000-watt infrared overhead heaters that will operate safely under the awning. They bring the temperature up as much as 32 degrees above the ambient outside temperature, making the awning space usable on all but the very coldest few days of the winter.

We haven’t been idle inside either. All the fixtures in the bathroom for soap, for hand drying, have been replaced with touchless fixtures for improved sanitation. Indoor air circulation has been improved with high powered but virtually silent fans. We have added four Honeywell air scrubbers with high filtration, as well as HEPA filters that clean viruses and bacteria from the air. Our coffee service is outside, prepared and given out by volunteers, masks are required at all times, except when actually drinking coffee, or smoking only in our smoking corral. Six-foot social distancing both inside and outside is required, and we do enforce these requirements. Our goal, admittedly an ambitious one, is to have not one single Covid 19 case this winter at The Gathering Place. With the conscientious help of our guests and volunteers, we think it is achievable.

We have transformed The Gathering Place to make it as safe as possible during this epidemic. None of it would be possible without the help of individual and community donors, who have given generously and who are responding now to our annual appeal.

Chick Carroll is a volunteer at The Gathering Place.

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