PORTLAND, Maine — When Mark Swann recalls his 20-plus years as executive director of Preble Street, he doesn’t mention accolades.
“To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming,” he told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “I find myself thinking about all the people and conversations, and the memorial services and laughs. I’m almost flooded by memories, by sadness and by happiness.”
Now Swann, who was hired by the small social work organization in 1991 when he was 28, is a finalist for what’s described as the most prestigious civilian award in America. After more than two decades under Swann’s leadership, Preble Street has grown from a two-employee outfit crowding clients into the basement of a downtown Portland church into a 185-employee network of shelters, cafeterias, community centers and programs.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation has included Swann among 20 finalists nationwide for its Service Before Self Honors, with winners to be named March 12 and recognized in a ceremony in Arlington, Va., on March 23. The Preble Street executive director was among hundreds nominated for the award, according to a foundation announcement Tuesday.
“Mark looked at the problem of homelessness in Maine and saw a solution and he’s dedicated his life to working toward that solution,” said a statement from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who nominated Swann for the honor. “He has changed more lives and saved more lives than we will probably ever know.”
The foundation citation for Swann states his work “has benefited thousands of homeless people.”
“After a handful of shelters in his area closed, Swann mobilized resources and developed a shelter that has saved thousands of lives,” the citation reads, in part. “As executive director of Preble Street, Swann developed an organization to empower people experiencing problems with homelessness, housing, hunger, and poverty and to advocate for solutions to those problems.”
The foundation named 10 Service Before Self Honor finalists credited with single acts of extraordinary heroism, as well as 10 others — including Swann — credited for their “sacrifice for others through a prolonged series of selfless acts.”
Preble Street’s most prominent current project involves the renovation of a recently acquired 9,000-square-foot former office building at 38 Preble St. to become the organization’s new shelter for homeless or runaway teenagers. The facility, slated to open in September, will increase the group’s number of overnight beds for teens from 16 — now housed in a breaking-down apartment building on nearby Elm Street — to 24.
The new Lighthouse Teen Shelter will join Preble Street mainstays such as its day shelter, teen center, soup kitchen and food pantry, as well as Florence House and Logan Place, which provide permanent apartments for the chronically homeless.
Swann said he’s proud the growth of Preble Street has followed the growth arc of his family as well — he and wife Mary had one 1-year-old when he started there in 1991. Now, children Lydia, Maggie and Jackson are nearing the end of their school years.
“If you had said to me 20 years ago Preble Street would be running shelters and building housing, along with our partners over at Avesta Housing, and taking a leadership role in human services, I’d have been quite surprised,” Swann said. “I felt really blessed to be here, and really driven by the daily sadness we see here, the daily tragedies people are pushing themselves through, and the resilience I’ve had the honor to see coming through those doors.”