It’s early on a Sunday morning, and there is a flurry of activity in the hall of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Westbrook. Parishioners are getting ready to open their doors to some special guests.
“Our only goal is to be hospitable,” says Eleanor Mavodones. “It’s all about being welcoming.”
The guests they will welcome are three families facing homelessness. St. Anthony is among 13 host congregations participating in Greater Portland Family Promise, an interfaith program that provides homeless families with basic needs while helping them regain their financial footing and independence.
Greater Portland Family Promise is an affiliate of the national Family Promise program, which was started in New Jersey n 1986. There are now more than 200 affiliates across the country
“Family Promise is just that. It’s a promise to the families to get them on their feet,” says Deacon Larry Guertin, pastoral life coordinator of the Sebago Lakes Region Parishes, which include St. Anthony. “So, how can you say no to that? How can you say no to helping people to do that? To accomplishing and giving them the life that they’re working so hard to achieve?”
“I see it as a hand up and not a hand out,” says Terry Plante, chair of the parish’s Social Justice and Peace Committee. “They just need that little extra, and that is what this does. It gives them that little bit of extra.”
“We all need to do something like this,” says Dan Willette, a parishioner from Gorham. “It takes people who are homeless off the streets and gets them into a home eventually.”
The program accomplishes that by working with public, community, and interfaith partners. While enrolled in the program, guests spend their days at the Greater Portland Family Promise Day Center, located at the YMCA in Portland, and their evenings at one of the 13 host sites.
The day center provides a place to store belongings, shower, and do laundry, and it is there that families receive case management and educational services, while also having the opportunity to seek employment and housing. Children attend school if they are of age.
When evening approaches, a van transports the families to one of the host communities, where they are given meals, a place to relax, and a safe place to sleep. Each interfaith community hosts a maximum of four families for a week at a time, four times a year.
“We’re one little spoke in the wheel. It’s like a big wheel, and we’re just 1/13th,” says Eleanor.
Being one spoke, however, doesn’t speak to the amount of work involved and coordination needed.
“There are a lot of moving pieces. We call it a moving puzzle,” says Eleanor. “It’s so many pieces, and it requires good communication.”
Eleanor and Terry make sure all those pieces come together. Eleanor is a retired social worker and Terry a retired elementary school teacher.
“Without Eleanor and Terry, it wouldn’t happen. They are the glue that keeps it together,” says Deacon Guertin.
Terry and Eleanor say that when Father Michael Seavey, former parochial vicar of the parish, first proposed the idea in 2017, it seemed daunting, but they say through the guidance and training provided by Family Promise and the generosity of parishioners, it has all come together. Now, they have around 100 volunteers they can call upon, not only from St. Anthony but from the other Sebago Lakes Region Parishes: Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham and St. Anne in Gorham.
“We realized it wouldn’t come together without the whole cluster. No one group could do this and not even our church could do it alone. It takes three churches,” says Terry. “We’re so lucky. We have a cluster, and we get help from all three.”
“It’s been wonderful, overwhelming, all these people from three parishes,” says Eleanor.
Volunteers take on many different roles. There is the set-up crew, which arrives early on the Sunday when the guests will come.
“We have classrooms and tables and chairs, and all of a sudden, poof, they become bedrooms,” says Deacon Guertin. “These people come in, and it’s magic. They just pull it together. It’s amazing.”
The volunteers inflate beds, which are delivered by Family Promise, then cover them with mattress pads, sheets, comforters, and blankets, including some donated by Cuddledown. Milaine Plante, a parishioner from Gorham, takes great care in making sure colors coordinate and that the children’s beds have sheets with whimsical designs, such as teddy bears or princesses.
“You want them to know you want them here. They are welcome here. When you have company at home, you do your best, and that’s what we do for them as well,” she says. “It shows respect for who they are.”
Other homey touches include bedroom lamps and flowers.
A sitting and play area is also set up with toys and activities chosen to match the age of the guests. This time, the parish will host families with children as young as four and as old as 16.
“We’ve got books. We’ve got games. We’ve got a huge can of Legos, Lincoln Logs,” says Terry.
“We have teachers who volunteer, who have wonderful skills. They know how to engage the kids, so the parents get a little bit of a break because they’ve been with them all day if they’re preschoolers,” says Eleanor.
Other volunteers dine with the guests, handle kitchen duty, or stay overnight in a separate sleeping area. Someone is always present, both to make sure the guests feel comfortable and in case an issue arises. Deacon Guertin and his wife, Sue, signed up for the overnight assignment.
“It’s something we really enjoy, getting to know the families,” he says. “You get to know them and their children, and then you don’t see them anymore. That is probably the hardest part, but that is a good thing.”
Parishioners from the three churches also take turns preparing meals, which include everything from roast chicken to meatloaf, a dish prepared by Lorraine Sullivan, from Westbrook.
“It really does not include much time. It’s making one meal every three months, and I don’t make the whole meal myself. My sister and a friend, there are three of us who work together,” she says.
The goal is to provide enough food so that there will be leftovers, which can be enjoyed for lunch the following day. The parish also provides breakfast each morning.
Other contributions come in the form of donations, which may go towards diapers, baby formula, or doing laundry afterwards. The Knights of Columbus and Daughters of Isabella are among those who have been generous contributors. The parish also received a Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant.
The volunteers say they are happy to play a part in helping families on their journeys to self-sufficiency.
“I think it’s important to provide different programs to help people move out of homelessness and get established,” says Jeff Patten, Terry’s son. “I like the fact that it focuses on keeping families together.”
“I think it’s a wonderful program because it certainly helps people to help themselves, which, to me, is the ideal of community work,” says Lorraine.
The volunteers say the guests always express their appreciation, whether through words, smiles, or hugs.
“They’re really trying so hard to make a better life for themselves, and they’re so gracious and so wonderful that it is truly a grace to be part of this program,” says Deacon Guertin.
“They’re always so grateful and thanking us all the time,” Terry says.
“When they leave, they have smiles on their faces, and that is enough satisfaction for me,” says Steve Gagnon, Eleanor’s husband. “I get so much satisfaction out of helping. It’s a great program.”
And it’s a program that works.
“The thing that is really nice is not seeing the same people coming back because they’ve accomplished what they’re trying to accomplish. They found homes. They found jobs. So, it’s good,” says Dennis Plante, Milaine’s husband. “We get a lot of pleasure out of doing it and seeing people benefit from it. It’s the right thing to do.”