PITTSFIELD — On Tuesday, Feb. 5, 170 “survival” backpacks were dropped off at the Pittsfield Community Theater by Peter Kelleher aka the Soupman. Inside each pack was a hat, gloves, socks and a large Ziploc bag of individual toiletries, all the basic needs for a homeless person as well as things food stamps can’t buy.
Helping unload were 15 community administrators from churches, food pantries, schools, law enforcement, Northern Light/SVH and the District Attorney’s Office. Then they took these packs to distribute to their own needy within Pittsfield and Somerset County.
The Soupman, Peter Kelleher, readily admits that he wasn’t always a fan of people. But when his homeless son Travis died three years ago from a drug overdose in Bangor, he says his outlook on life changed. He started serving soup to the homeless in Massachusetts where he lives and realized he could make a difference in their lives.
Word spread about the Soupman and now Kelleher has expanded his services. Several times a year Kelleher travels with his support dog Koji in a donated, renovated school bus to Maine. The Soupman’s bus is a clothes pantry on wheels. There are bins of winter socks, gloves, coats and boots. In the summer he’ll have outdoor shower facilities. He expects to distribute 1,700 backpacks this week to Mainers in need.
While Pittsfield does not have a problem with people living on the street, there are many people without a home. Homelessness takes many forms. It may be couch surfing, living with family and/or friends, living in a car or mini-barn or maybe even abruptly forced from their home due to domestic abuse or foreclosure.
Pittsfield Police Chief Pete Bickmore was delighted when the Soupman contacted him last week, “Last year, this guy drove up in this weird, red schoolbus, dropped off 25 backpacks at our station and took off. We didn’t know who he was, what he was about. Nothing!”
This year, with a week’s notice, Bickmore organized community leaders for a pickup and even escorted the Soupman into town. “Cops working together with the community — it’s what we do. It helps everyone.”
At a meeting before the Soupman’s arrival, and knowing there was a limited supply of backpacks, the leaders decided to distribute them within their own needy.
For Beth Platt, Patient Navigator at Sebasticook Valley Hospital, the needy are the middle aged to elderly people who can’t afford health insurance or prescription drugs and sometimes don’t have hats or gloves. “They’re living in a car, even a mini-barn. These are the frequent flyers in the emergency room. It doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal [the backpacks], but they’re very touched and appreciative.” Platt took 10.
Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster is donating the 15 bags he picked up to individuals leaving the jail that are indigent. “I think that we change things one person at a time.”
Detective Mike Pike of the Somerset County District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Office took 20. Half are going to domestic violence victims in or out of shelters and half to KVCAP, “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Shirley Humphrey of Hartland took 10, “Three are going to the town office for general assistance, three for the fire department for emergency burnouts and the rest to our food cupboard for those without gloves and hats.”
Larry Kehoe of the Pittsfield Food Pantry, which also serves Detroit and Burnham, put 10 in his wagon, “We’ve all been down that road — losing a job, illness or whatever, wondering how to pay bills. Anything helps.”
Lt. Jason Madore of the Maine State Police, Troop C, Skowhegan took 10, “We put a backpack in every cruiser because you never know who or when it’ll be needed.”
Also participating were Jaime Jensen of the Pittsfield Community Theater who hosted this event, Pastor Ted Bragg of the Pittsfield Calvary Baptist Church, Pastor Tim Hoyt of the Pittsfield Church of the Nazarene, Pastor Herb Pearl of the Palmyra Food Pantry, Macie Batchelder of MCI, Superintendent Sherry Littlefield of MSAD 53, Chief Dave Bucknam of the Skowhegan Police Dept, and Mike Cray of Northern Light. For more about the Soupman go to supportthesoupman.org.