When the temperatures plummeted this past January, The Gathering Place was supporting several individuals and families who were either living outside or in their cars. As we’re lifting COVID restrictions, we’re seeing very tangibly the difficulties in more people needing services, mental health challenges, and overall health challenges. Temperatures dipping into single digits can mean life or death for someone without safe shelter. It remains the vision of The Gathering Place to make sure people who don’t have resources are safe when these cold-weather events happen.

In true Gathering Place tradition, I put out a call for volunteers to help support efforts to open The Gathering Place’s Warming Center as it was dangerously cold and we had several people in need of shelter. Within 24 hours we had secured volunteers to open for the first time this winter, Monday, January 10. We had eleven guests seeking shelter including a couple who walked to The Gathering Place all the way from Freeport.

“The all-nighters were rather reminiscent of early days at The Gathering Place. The guests were grateful, pleasant and helpful. People pitched in; the lines between volunteers and guests were blurred; I got by with a lot of help from my friends. Beyond that, I will just say that when I’m hesitant to leave my woodstove and my wine, I remember Russell, and get my aging arse out of the rocker and go”, said Judy Gray, a long time Gathering Place volunteer and board member who is one of our dedicated warming center volunteers.

I often reference the death of The Gathering Place longtime guest Russell Williams as the impetus for The Gathering Place’s efforts to try and fill this needed gap in emergency services, because he is. Losing a friend to the winter elements is a loss that none of us ever wants to experience again. As a result, our dedicated volunteers always give so much to make sure we don’t.

It was not just our volunteers who stepped up this winter to make sure The Gathering Place’s community was safe, it was our guests as well. Each week I would receive offers from so many guests to volunteer if we needed the help. It is a community of people who love and care for each other and are looking for ways to give back to so many that have helped them along their journeys.

“One evening that really struck me when operating the overnight shelter this winter was when a group of community members brought in an amazing dinner for everyone,” said Alex Bessey, The Gathering Place’s community navigator.” I believe it was chop suey with loaves of bread, butter, and a big pan of cornbread. The food and the folks who brought it were amazing, but what I found even more enjoyable about the experience was the reaction of the guests. We had a number of new(ish) faces – at least to the overnight shelter – that evening; and they all were so grateful. They profusely thanked those who provided the meal, and helped to carry the food / get it arranged neatly for folks to enjoy. The guests who were present shared with me a feeling of being cared about. They told me that it felt really nice to know that there are community members who really care for others. This person went on to express that in the time they had been unsheltered/housing unstable, they had experienced a lot of harsh words and criticisms in the community; and that this instance helped to renew their faith in the community and in their value and ability to be a part of it.”

George Hardy shared: “Opening the Warming Center is so important. The event that stands out in my mind is when one of the guests went into a complete meltdown over an innocent comment that another guest made. There was cursing and shouting and waving of arms all of which was out of character for this guest. I immediately moved to deescalate the situation. All to no avail. Another guest stood up and with a big smile walked across the room and said, ‘Let’s go outside before you offend everyone in here.’ Without comment, both individuals got up and went outside for a few minutes. When they came back they were calm and stayed that way for the rest of the night. That was probably the best intervention that I have ever seen in that kind of situation. It was not done by a trained professional (me) but by a caring member of the group. Healing comes from within the group.”

As always, The Gathering Place is blessed to have the support of so many community partners whose cooperation and support make initiatives like our overnight Warming Center possible. The Maine Women’s Giving Tree provided support for The Gathering Place’s Winter Readiness Program which includes operating our center. Brunswick General Assistance, Brunswick Police Department, Oasis Free Clinic, and Tedford Housing provide emergency referrals to The Gathering Place on the nights we are open. Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program provides our overnight guests with a warm meal and food to go as needed. MidCoast Hospital and the Brunswick Interfaith Council provided such guidance and worked tirelessly with The Gathering Place to identify additional volunteers so we can continue to operate this needed program. We were able to open on seven occasions this winter and with additional volunteers and funding we will be able to expand this program next winter. Thank you all again for supporting the efforts of The Gathering Place.

Mary Connolly is the executive director of The Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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