Burglary is ‘last straw’ forcing closure of Topsfield food pantry, operators say

Posted June 26, 2014, at 5:35 a.m.
Last modified June 26, 2014, at 12:25 p.m.
Charles Harriman talks about the burglary that occurred  at the Topsfield food pantry last month as he stands behind an empty refrigerator.
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Charles Harriman talks about the burglary that occurred at the Topsfield food pantry last month as he stands behind an empty refrigerator.
Diana Harriman finds the burglary at the Topsfield food pantry an emotional topic.
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Diana Harriman finds the burglary at the Topsfield food pantry an emotional topic.
Charles and Diana Harriman stand in the basement of the Congregational Church of Topsfield. The two say they closed the food pantry on June 17 due to a burglary reported on May 30.
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Charles and Diana Harriman stand in the basement of the Congregational Church of Topsfield. The two say they closed the food pantry on June 17 due to a burglary reported on May 30.

TOPSFIELD, Maine — Charles and Diana Harriman might still be operating the Topsfield Congregational Church food pantry if it weren’t for a burglary that broke their hearts, they said Wednesday.

After running the food pantry for seven years, the Codyville Plantation residents closed the doors on June 17, in response to a pantry break-in on May 30. Closing the pantry, which serves 76 people a month and has 168 families on its client list, was not easy, the Harrimans said, but they couldn’t get over the crime.

“Just seeing the door being damaged — I know this is a building to other people, but in my eyes it is a church of God. For them to break in, that broke my heart right there. I couldn’t take [any] more. It hurt so bad,” 63-year-old Diana Harriman said, her eyes brimming with tears.

“I feel sorry for people who have to go places [to get food]. I know a lot of them don’t have the money for gas. I think of them every day,” she added. “Hopefully they found a food pantry that they enjoy going to.”

The food pantry closure is a loss to Topsfield, First Selectman Ricky Irish said. The town in northern Washington County, which has a population of 237 people, usually contributed about $500 annually to it.

“It’s too bad, and I am sure people will suffer because of it,” Irish said. “It’s been a big help to people who needed it around here.”

The Harrimans said they reported the burglary, which is being investigated by Maine State Police. According to a state police dispatcher, the crime was reported when Trooper Greg Tirado, who was passing by on his way to a work detail, was flagged down at about 5 p.m. on May 30.

Charles Harriman pulled onto the short, mostly grassy road alongside the building and let Diana out of the vehicle when he noticed the door appeared to have been forced open. The stolen food appeared to include about a dozen packages of steak, chicken, bacon, pork chops and other frozen meats, the Harrimans’ 41-year-old daughter Stephanie Lyndsay said.

Tirado did not immediately return a telephone message Wednesday.

The burglary, Lyndsay said, was a cruel blow to the Harrimans. They received donations from several churches, schools and aid groups from Calais to Brewer, but they also purchased some food and paid to heat the cellar themselves in order to keep the pantry going, she said.

“They put their heart and soul into that. It seems like they are always running to pick up supplies,” Charles’ nephew and Topsfield Third Selectman Jeff Harriman said. “They spend a lot of time out there. It is not uncommon to drive by and see one of their vehicles there while they are working at the pantry.”

The pantry served about 18,000 pounds of dry and canned goods, frozen foods and juices to Topsfield and 13 neighboring communities a month, Charles Harriman said. For Charles, a 69-year-old retired logging truck driver, and Diana, a part-time wreath-maker, the pantry was a place where they said they could serve God and man and enjoy themselves, too. They usually worked there about 12 hours a week, they said.

“The best part was meeting the people,” Charles Harriman said. “We’d sit and talk with them, laugh with them.”

“We don’t mind teasing or being teased,” Diana Harriman said.

The pantry, they said, was increasingly important to the Topsfield area as its population aged, young people left and poverty increased.

“It is a hard economy here in Washington County, so it makes it very difficult to handle something as large as running a food pantry,” Jeff Harriman said.

The burglary wasn’t Charles Harriman’s first brush with crime at the pantry. Years ago, he said, he was at a local gas station when a young woman approached him, explaining that she had just picked up a box of food and needed to sell it for cigarette money. The food came from the pantry, he said.

“She saw my face, and she left,” Harriman said. “She never came back to the pantry.”

The town has no plans to find someone to carry on the pantry work, Irish and Jeff Harriman said. That leaves those who need it to travel to church pantries in Calais, Lincoln or Brewer, Charles Harriman said.

Now that they will no longer run the pantry, Charles and Diana Harriman will concentrate on taking care of his 90-year-old mother, they said.

Diana Harriman wonders if the burglar or burglars know of the impact of the crime.

“I am hoping that they found out from other people that the place has been closed, that the place is empty,” she said. “Hopefully they will read this, see it and don’t break into anything anymore.”

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