BANGOR, Maine — Because of the current hard times, a warming center started by the First United Methodist Church for use by struggling area residents during the cold winter months has evolved into a place where they can also go once a week for a hearty meal.
The church opened the warming center as a ministry two years ago to offer people hot soup and a haven from the cold. It averaged 15 people per week in its first year, but attendance has grown to approximately 35 to 50 people each week this year, and it’s still going strong.
The center was originally operated from November to the end of March and served only soup, but its increased popularity and the addition of a variety of meals persuaded the volunteers who coordinate it to offer the weekly meal year-round.
“People were still coming and didn’t want to see the ministry end in March,” said Reeni Cipullo, the church’s parish secretary.
The warming center is funded through an anonymous $10,000 donation in 2008. About half of the donation remains, and the church hopes to continue the center to the end of the year and even longer.
“I think that the members of the church would pull together and continue the ministry” if the initial donation ran out, Cipullo said.
Most of the food is donated from community members and is usually prepared by five to six volunteers each week, but it is hard to get volunteers in the summer, Cipullo said. There were three volunteers helping during the week of June 6-12.
Attendees come from a variety of cities and towns, including Brewer, Hampden, Glenburn, Bangor and Old Town, and vary in age from 6-month-old babies to people in their 70s. Cipullo said the people who come enjoy the company and the friendly atmosphere, as well as the day care the church offers. The weekly meals are open to everyone, including nonchurch members.
The guests “always have a story. Whether it’s tragic or not depends on the listener,” said Chuck Seguin, the lead coordinator of the warming center. Seguin said one woman told him it was her first time attending the weekly meal and she was there because she “didn’t want to cook tonight.”
“We’re not asking for anything in return, except for you to come and join us,” Seguin said.
The meals are held 4 to 7 p.m. every Thursday at the Essex Street church. The last one was June 17 and attracted at least nine people by about 4:30 p.m.
Joe Proctor, 56, of Bangor said he saw a sign for the weekly meal while driving past the church one day and decided to check it out. He has been attending the meals since the winter and enjoys the atmosphere and the food, and said he is glad it continued year-round. He has made a lot of friends at the weekly meals. He does odd jobs, from painting to car repair, but said he is mostly looking for full-time work.
This past Thursday’s meal included deer and beef meatloaf with mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, pasta salad, bread and various desserts. Sometimes the volunteers offer to send food home with people, Seguin said.
“We’re not trying to pressure anybody. This is not a guilt trip,” Seguin said.
Cheryl Robinson of Bangor said she has been attending the warming center for about a month. The 36-year-old works at Burger King in Bangor and hopes the meals continue because she enjoys the atmosphere and has made a few friends at there.
“I think it’s pretty handy that they do this,” she said.
Patricia Parks of Glenburn said, “I just love it; it’s a nice place to come. The food is delicious.” Parks works at Downeast Elementary school in Bangor as a lunch aide.
Cipullo described most of the attendees as members of the “struggling middle class,” and about 25 people are regulars. The warming center isn’t a soup kitchen, according to Seguin, just a chance to offer a meal and a friendly atmosphere.
In addition to the warming center, the church operates a garden outside on its front lawn, where Sunday school pupils recently planted tomatoes, peas, beans, squash and cucumbers. Once grown, the vegetables will be given free of charge to people in the surrounding community that need them.