The quilt is covered in roses, a garden in soft lavender.

Volunteer Trudi Bakke has chosen it from the cabinets at the Portland nonprofit Maine Needs and bundled it with two new pillows and a set of fresh white sheets. She rereads the copy of an email attached to her clipboard.

“I have a client who just got a bed for the first time in her life. She is 50 years old,” writes a caseworker at a mental health and substance use agency.

Bakke gives a satisfied nod.

“I got her a nice cute comforter,” she says.

She carries the bedding into a small room lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding stuffed Ikea bags. Stapled onto each one is an index card with the name of a social worker or teacher or nurse or community organizer who has asked for the items inside.


The goal at Maine Needs is to get the exact things people need most into their hands as efficiently as possible. Caseworkers of all kinds make direct requests on behalf of their clients. The nonprofit uses Facebook and Instagram to communicate which items are in demand at any given time, and it is quick to say what donations it does and doesn’t want.

Maine Needs volunteers Trudi Bakke, left, and Marilyn Hickey organize a room filled with donated items bagged up and ready to go to the caseworkers who requested them. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Wanted: New or gently used clothing, household basics, hygiene products, cleaning supplies. Not wanted: Tired or damaged things, garbage bags full of unsorted items, dirty clothes, other people’s memories, stuff no one would want to receive.

Maine Needs is trying to give respect, not castoffs.

“We are the pickiest donation center in Maine,” said Angela Stone, founder and president.

On a sunny March morning, volunteer Christine McAuliffe sorts through two large bags of donated baby and toddler clothes. She makes one pile to keep, one to give to Goodwill.

Signs on the walls guide her choices.


“No stains, tears, holes, fading, pilling, dog hair, musty or smelly clothes.”

“Not all kids have a mommy, daddy, grandma or grandpa. Please purge all clothes with familial wording on it. Also, let go of specific holiday clothing. Not everyone celebrates the same holidays.”

McAuliffe rejects a couple of white shirts with yellowing collars, a “Dad’s Little Princess” onesie, a pair of Christmas pajamas with Santa feet. She saves a pink puffer vest, a T-shirt with a watermelon on it, a light blue crocheted hat with a felt flower.

Marie Tillson, left, and Dianne Ellis, volunteers with Maine Needs, sort through donations. Shawn Patrick Ouelette/Staff Photographer

Donations from the community are strong, but need sets a fast pace.

“I find it truly amazing the amount of stuff that comes in and goes out on a daily basis,” McAuliffe says, as she drops a pile of baby clothes into a rolling bin. “It’s cool, but it’s also scary.”

Melissa Johnson had just been hired for a housekeeping job when the pandemic started in 2020. Suddenly she was out of work, and she had no cash to buy cleaning products or school supplies for remote learning.


“If it wasn’t for Maine Needs, I wouldn’t have basic necessities that I need at all,” she said.

Maine Needs has helped her with art supplies for her children, quarters to clean their bedding at a laundromat, winter boots to keep her own feet warm when she walks to her errands because she doesn’t have a car, kitchen supplies to cook for the family. And she thought of Maine Needs when she wanted to donate a stroller and clothing her children, now 5 and 10, had outgrown.

“The thing I worry about the most is being able to provide for my kids,” Johnson said. “It makes you feel better as a parent to have this organization to help.”


On March 18, Stone posted on the Maine Needs Facebook page: “65 instant pots needed for families living in hotel rooms.”

“There are 65 hotel rooms being used to house families because shelters are completely full. The people helping to support these families most are trying to equip each room with an instant pot, and teach lessons on how to use them to make breakfast, lunch and dinner.”


She added links to pressure cookers for more than $70 each. In two days, the need was met.

South Portland’s hotels are acting as shelters for hundreds of asylum seekers from countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Brazil.

Alice Kabore, the multicultural and multilingual coordinator for South Portland schools, is among those working with the families.

Kabore said most of the asylum seekers could not bring anything on their long, often traumatic journeys to the United States. Through Maine Needs, they’ve gotten underwear, warm clothes, shoes that fit, a couple of sewing machines – and now, Instant Pots.

“People prefer to cook on their own, to have some vegetables,” Kabore said. “It has been a challenge since they live in the hotel with only a microwave.”

Stone started Maine Needs because she was heartbroken by stories of parents and children separated at the southern U.S. border. She contacted the Maine Access Immigrant Network in 2018 to find out how she could help families starting new lives in Maine.


Angela Stone, founder of Maine Needs, at the donation center in March. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Basics were needed, she was told, diapers and bedding. She began reaching out to mom groups on Facebook. In 2019, she started her own Maine Needs Facebook group to give caseworkers and organizers a place to make direct requests. That summer, she and other volunteers ran a free store in a back room of a Portland nonprofit. They focused on baby and toddler items, and people could browse and take what they needed.

Stone’s career was in interior design, not nonprofits or social work. She was quickly overwhelmed by the demand, especially when so many asylum seekers arrived in Portland that the city opened the Expo to shelter them.

“There was a huge learning curve,” Stone said. “We were not trained caseworkers with a background in trauma.”

The store shut down a few months before the pandemic hit. But Stone’s Facebook group was still active, and she wanted to find Maine Needs a physical space.

That summer, she raised money. That October, Maine Needs became a nonprofit and opened the donation center on Forest Avenue. The center is a maze of rooms, full of tall white cabinets and orderly racks of clothes. It is not open for browsing, but people can drop off items on specific days and caseworkers can come to pick up their requests. The nonprofit, which has been running with 400-plus volunteers, is just now hiring its first paid employee.

If the donation center can’t fill a particular request, caseworkers can still crowdsource in the original Facebook group, going strong with nearly 9,000 members.


Maine Needs now is a resource for many – immigrant families, people who sleep outside, parents on their last diapers, survivors of domestic violence, the recently incarcerated trying to get back on their feet.

“They all need underwear,” Stone said. “They all need socks. They all need toiletries. Their kids all need learning tools. They all need an affordable place to live. They all have the same basic needs.”


Volunteer Michelle Birkel reads the email on her clipboard requesting clothing and shoes for a woman, a boy and a girl. Then she plunges her hands into a box full of winter boots and digs out a black-and-hot-pink pair, still with tags on.

Maine Needs volunteer Michelle Birkel pulls a pair a boots from a box as she searches to fill a request at Maine Needs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Her own children are grown, but she thinks about them as she hunts for tops and pants.

“I had girls that were tomboys,” she says. “When I fill an order for a girl, I try not to go all pink. I try to give options.”


So into her bag go jeans and blue leggings, a denim button-down, a shirt covered in colorful butterflies.

Soon, she moves on to another task: unboxing new zero-degree sleeping bags for people living outside. When necessary, Maine Needs fundraises to buy key supplies that are difficult to come by.

“People living outside all winter need better sleeping bags and tents than people camping for a weekend in the summer,” Stone said. “People walking everywhere need better shoes, boots, coats and strollers than anyone.”

Meg Charest learned about Maine Needs last year as an AmeriCorps caseworker in Washington County schools. Now she is a middle school teacher at Narraguagus Junior Senior High School in Harrington, and Maine Needs has helped her fill a closet in her classroom with items her students don’t always have access to at home: deodorant, pads and tampons, toothbrushes, leggings. One of her students was delighted to find a name-brand sweatshirt inside.

“They went from missing school and wearing the same worn-out clothes on a regular basis to having this whole new presence at school,” Charest said. “They were coming more often. I have seen that sweatshirt every day.”

Sometimes, a Maine Needs volunteer delivers requests to Washington County. Other times, area caseworkers and teachers put in a big joint request and drive to Portland to get it. They’ve gotten so much there, including Halloween costumes, art supplies, sports equipment.


A chalkboard tally of items from Maine Needs that have gone out into the community, on a wall of the nonprofit’s donation center. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I would so love to see all the big systems issues that we have resolved,” Charest said. ” But … Maine Needs responds to the urgency of people’s situations while we’re waiting on those systems to change.”

Stephanie Tzrinske is a case manager at a nonprofit called KidsPeace, and works with families in southern Maine that have been referred to Child Protective Services. She often finds that poverty is at the root of their challenges. She said many see their limited resources and government aid swallowed by the high costs of housing and food, and have little left for winter boots or soap or hairbrushes.

Her organization used to spend thousands of dollars on Walmart and TJ Maxx gift cards so families could buy cleaning products or coats. Now she gets those items and more through Maine Needs, and has some money available to help families with rent and water bills. And Maine Needs goes beyond the basics. In one order, a volunteer added “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Goodnight Moon” in Spanish. The mother who got the books cried when she saw them.

“She had not been able to read a book to her daughter in the last two years she has lived here,” Tzrinske said.


Bakke opens the doors of a tall white cabinet to find a wall of diapers.


“I have another client who needs size 4 diapers, size 5 diapers, any child toiletries, baby wipes and cleaning supplies,” the email on her clipboard says.

She grabs a package of Huggies for the size 4 and a Ziploc bag packed with size 5. She picks up a cleaning kit, two toothbrushes (one red, one green, both with googly eyes), a bottle of lavender baby shampoo. The request is filled, but she adds a “Minute for Mom” kit, a little bag with lotion and other items for self-care.

At Maine Needs, such kits – for cleaning, for a parent, for kids to make art, for people living outside – are a way to offer a little extra. In the winter, those outdoor kits contain hand warmers and lip balm; in the summer, tick spray and sunblock. Maine Needs adds $5 Dunkin’ gift cards, enough to buy a drink and a snack and some time inside.

Courtney Bass has worked for Milestone Recovery for more than a decade, and now she is part of the HOME Team that does street outreach. When the nonprofit was building those kits, Stone turned to Bass for her expertise. Bass suggested adding Band-Aids for basic wound care. The people she serves often went without warm clothing and durable supplies she now brings them from the donation center.

“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you want to look the part,” Bass said.

Volunteer Dianne Ellis once received a “Minute for Mom” kit. She had just moved into a recovery program and had little to call her own, and her caseworker got clothing and shoes for her and her young daughter through Maine Needs. She remembered those items when she was looking for a place to complete community service hours. Now she sorts tops and pants by size, and when she fills an order, she does so with firsthand experience of need.

Volunteers at Maine Needs fill requests from caseworkers for all sorts of basic items for individuals and families in need. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I try to give them the best I can find,” she says.

As Bakke and Ellis fill shelves and empty them, the door is propped open to let in the fresh air and chirping of early spring. Sunlight filters through the Maine Needs logo on the windows: a lady’s slipper, a rare orchid that blooms in the Maine woods, a sign of warmer days to come after even the harshest of winters.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story