January 12

Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry’s donations come from ‘the little people’

When the pantry needed $150,000 to build a new home, volunteers thought the support would come from the rich and wealthy. They were wrong.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — If you guessed that a local food pantry’s cash crisis was solved by big-name donors and large foundations, you’d be wrong.

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FOOD FOR FOLKS: Joe Lessard, 49, of Benton, center facing, receives bags of food from volunteers at the First Baptist Church food pantry in Fairfield on Thursday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Paperwork: Pastor Joyce Perkins, left, helps Joe Lessard, 49, of Benton, fill out the proper paperwork to receive food from the First Baptist Church food pantry in Fairfield on Thursday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

Instead, the money might have come from your neighbor, and your neighbor might be keeping it a secret.

Over the holiday season, Fairfield’s least fortunate were given a boost by a pair of anonymous donors, the latest example of a trend toward anonymous giving from people with local ties.

An early December pledge of $25,000 was matched with another $25,000 donation later that month, giving leaders and clients of the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry new hope in their quest to find a new, permanent home from which they can continue to feed the poor.

In the 20 years since it was founded, the pantry’s 50 active volunteers have distributed food to individuals 68,000 times.

One person who will benefit from the donations is area resident Joe Lessard, 49, who has been coming to the pantry for years.

“They really help you out a lot,” he said. “I’m glad for that.”

Ever since the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church closed in 2011, the suddenly homeless pantry has struggled in temporary housing at the First Baptist Church of Newhall Street.

The pantry’s volunteers appreciate the use of the space, co-director Nancy Marcoux said, but it is far from ideal, with operations spilling out onto the lawn and quarters so cramped that pastors dispense counseling services from inside a narrow bathroom.

The space is not only inconvenient, but it also creates privacy concerns, as people waiting for help are often within earshot of those who are engaged in conversations with the pastor on duty.

The pantry’s fortunes took a turn for the better when it received a donation of a small, abandoned warehouse behind the Town Office and the Gerald Hotel, part of a larger plan to renovate the hotel into a senior housing project.

But the building is currently inadequate to house the pantry. It needs water, heat, a new roof and significant repairs to windows and entryways, work that will cost as much as $150,000.

When they started looking for funds early last year, Marcoux and Louella Bickford, the pantry volunteer in charge of the fundraising campaign, said she expected support to come from large, well-known retailers like Walmart, celebrities like Stephen King and charitable foundations, like the Harold Alfond Foundation.

They were wrong.

Bickford said all of the donors either live or have lived in Fairfield and maintain strong ties to the community.

“I thought when we first started that Stephen King and all these big businesses would help us,” Bickford said. “It wasn’t that. It was all the small people.”

When the fundraising campaign was begun last year, many local businesses gave. Lawrence High School students raised money for the cause. An envelope with five dollars in it showed up at the Lawrence Public Library, where Bickford works.

And then there were individuals who stepped forward, sometimes giving until it hurt.

“Some people gave me a hundred,” Bickford said. “I thought they could use it more than we could.”

The fundraising campaign raised $50,000 fairly quickly.

But as the first round of enthusiasm passed and those closest to the pantry were tapped, the flow of donations dried up. Over the second half of 2013, only $8,000 more was raised, a sluggish pace that would have put the goal nearly five years away.

The dry spell dragged on, from weeks to months.

Maine can be a difficult place to raise a dollar. A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently ranked Maine 49th of 50 states in giving, with those making between $50,000 and $100,000 donating an average of 3.3 percent of discretionary income, “a rate much lower than for people in other states with the same level of income.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Volunteer Work: Sam Young, 19, loads bags of food in to the back seat of Joe Lessard’s car with Dale Heald, 53, in the front seat at the First Baptist Church food pantry in Fairfield on Thursday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Waiting: Joe Lessard, 49, of Benton, waits for his order to be filled at the food pantry at the First Baptist Church in Fairfield on Thursday. Lessard is picking up an order for seven people.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

 


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