A food and fundraising drive underway in Rockland is aiming to fill the every seat of the Strand Theatre with donations. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― Last year, a historic Rockland theater was filled with two tons of food and over $25,000 in donations for a local non-profit that provides food and energy assistance to Knox County residents. On Monday, organizers hope to do it all over again with the second annual “Fill the Strand” event to benefit the organization, Area Interfaith Outreach.

Organizers say the event is especially important this time of year as winter tightens its grip and the needs of people in the community become more acute.

“The need increases as everybody struggles to get through a Maine winter and the contributions dwindle as everybody catches their breath after the holidays. So it is a pretty critical time for an event like this,” AIO Executive Director Joe Ryan said.

Donations for AOI fill the seats of the Strand Theatre during the inaugural 2021 event. Credit: Courtesy of Jessie Davis

The event will take place at the downtown theater on Monday, in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is a federally recognized day of service. In recent weeks, local businesses and community groups have been gearing up for the event, filling collection boxes with non-perishable food items that will be dropped off at the theater between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Monday.

Volunteers will be at the Strand accepting donations and organizing them into bags to fill the seats of the theater. Built in 1923, the Strand features 350 seats. Last year, donations filled the seats of the theater three times ― greatly exceeding expectations.

“It was the first time we did the event, it was during the pandemic, it was in January. There was no reason why this should [have been] as successful as it was. So we didn’t know what to expect,” Ryan said. “Everything aligned, it came together and it was a tremendous event and we’re so excited to see what we can do this year.”

About 12 percent of Knox County residents were estimated to have experienced food insecurity last year, according to the Good Shepherd Food Bank. This includes one in five children in the county.

For over 30 years, AIO has been providing food and energy assistance to Knox County residents. Ryan said the organization has seen the number of people they serve increase over the last year, both due to a new facility that allows AIO to serve more people more often, as well as a general increase in need caused by the financial toll the pandemic has taken on many community members.

“There are more families and individuals that are struggling to make ends meet, either with loss of work, or change of industries due to the pandemic. There is also very little increase in salaries, so everything is costing more and salaries are not keeping pace with the cost of things,” Ryan said. “Fuel costs are up, everything costs more, so families that are struggling have a much harder time meeting their monthly expenses.”

The food and donations received through Monday’s event will directly help support the assistance programs offered by AOI, Ryan said.

Organizers attributed the success of last year’s event to the generosity of the local community, as well as the creativity behind the concept of trying to fill a historic theater space with donations for a good cause.

“It was amazing. It was beautiful. It was all those things that you hope a first time event is going to turn out to be. Why wouldn’t we make it a tradition,” said Jill Lang, communications manager for Allen Insurance and Financial, which provides volunteers to staff the event.