Anne Staples, holding her cat in her arm, extends a hand to take her bagged meal from David Pike Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Staff Photo/Nina Mahaleris

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OLD TOWN, Maine — When a fire devastated part of the city’s downtown last year and the scorched buildings were reduced to a pile of rubble, a big sign declaring “Old Town Strong” was left behind in the newly empty lot — a symbol of the community’s resilience.

That sentiment is especially true now, as city residents grapple with food insecurity, social isolation and other challenges further intensified by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Wanting to help the community through the crisis, Old Town’s firefighters started dropping off free lunches to older people who reside in the city’s housing authority buildings — some who live alone and have little access to transportation or the ability to make their own meals.

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When the firefighters’ union decided to use its annual fundraising savings — about $2,000 normally set aside for charitable giving — to provide free meals, other community leaders jumped on board, including Bells Orono IGA and United Way, which donated $1,000 to the Old Town Housing Authority, to help cover the cost.

“Four weeks ago, our lives changed overnight,” said Bob Craft, co-owner of Bells IGA in Orono and Calais. Craft and his partner, David Pike, who together run the two stores, have supplied Old Town firefighters with more than 100 lunches for people at discounted prices.

Craft’s wife Amy, who also works at the Calais store, made baked ziti at her home for the meal on April 21, and helped pack brown lunch bags with a banana, bottled water, a dinner roll and granola bar.

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Pike and Craft have worked at IGA together since they were 14, and after buying the two stores last June, they felt compelled to help the communities get through the pandemic in their own way.

“We felt like giving back to the community during this crisis situation,” Craft said. The three also joined firefighters to deliver food Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve always been there to help [the fire department]. They approached us about doing this for the next three weeks and we immediately said, ‘yes, what can we do?’”

Martin Somers, the facilities director for properties including Marsh Island Apartments, Bickmore Manor, Penobscot Terrace and Dow Apartments Phase III — the four Old Town apartment complexes whose residents have received a weekly free meal — said that Marsh Island offers a program that provides meals and does grocery shopping for residents, although not everyone takes part in it.

For those who don’t, a home-cooked meal brought to their doors and a moment of social interaction with Old Town’s first responders is meaningful.

“We don’t take them for granted for any reason — we love them here,” said Helen Shirland, a resident of Marsh Island Apartments.

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The city’s first responders are familiar faces to Shirland and her neighbors, who are accustomed to seeing firefighters pick up residents for their doctor’s appointments or just out in the community.

Small gestures can have a big impact for people in tight-knit communities like Old Town, and the department’s weekly meal delivery is no exception. When they started bringing meals last week, Shirland hung a thank you sign on her front door for first responders.

“God bless you and keep you safe,” read the sign, above a hand-drawn red heart. Shirland put the words, “Forever Grateful,” at the very bottom.

Similarly, Penobscot Terrace resident Norma Rockwell was ready with a thank-you card in hand when a firefighter knocked on her door to deliver a bagged lunch Tuesday afternoon.

She quickly slipped him the handmade card before taking her meal and shutting the door.

“They’re always so patient and so kind. They treat us like we’re their grandmothers or something,” Shirland said. “They’re my superheroes.”

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