2015-11-27 / Community

Community Outreach moves into 25th year

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Beth Jones, executive director of Community Outreach Services, an ecumenical charity program now celebrating its 25th year, stands in the group’s food pantry at St. Martha’s Church in Kennebunk, from which the organization provides meals to more than 120 area residents per month. (Duke Harrington photo) Beth Jones, executive director of Community Outreach Services, an ecumenical charity program now celebrating its 25th year, stands in the group’s food pantry at St. Martha’s Church in Kennebunk, from which the organization provides meals to more than 120 area residents per month. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — For Beth Jones, it all started with one hungry child.

When her son Owen was in the first grade, he asked if Jones would pack him a bigger snack for his school lunch. She naturally asked why the boy felt he needed more to eat and her heart melted when Owen said it wasn’t for him.

“He said the little boy who sat next to him came to school without having any breakfast and he was hungry,” Jones recalled on Saturday.

From that point on, Jones began packing two brown bags, one for her son and one, with extra snacks and breakfast items, for his friend. It was later in the year when the boys’ teacher, in giving a lesson about healthy eating, had all of the children in the class dump their snacks out onto their desks, announcing she would rate them for their nutritional value.

“My son’s deskmate won,” Jones recalled, “and the teacher said, ‘Your mommy must love you very much to give you such healthy snacks.’ He looked up and said, ‘Not my mommy. Owen’s mommy.’

“The teacher was horrified because she didn’t know I’d been doing that,” Jones said.

The next day, Jones was called into the principal’s office, whereupon it was her turn to be horrified when told between 20 and 25 children arrived at the school every day not having had breakfast.

Jones quickly hatched a plan to create a snack program and, in need of funding for it, she approached Community Outreach Services.

“They said, ‘OK, we’ll fund you, but only if you’ll join our board,’ ” Jones said with a laugh.

That was 23 years ago. At that time, COS was still a fledging food pantry, with just two years under its belt. Flash forward and COS this month is quietly celebrating 25 years of service to the Kennebunks region, with Jones at the helm as executive director for the past 15.

COS was launched in November 1990 to economize efforts of two local churches, St. Martha’s Church and St. David’s Episcopal, to help feed those struggling to get by during an economic recession that hit that year.

“When some of the women who were organizing it realized they were both doing the same thing, they decided to join together,” Jones said. “At that point they asked other churches in town if they would like to join them, and it just kept rolling from there.”

More churches joined the effort, including Sea Road Christian, South Congregational, Holy Cross Lutheran, First Congregational, West Kennebunk Methodist, Christ Church, and Church on the Cape, in addition to St. Martha’s and St. David’s. All continue to participate today, with the non-perishable food pantry housed at St. Martha’s.

Over the years, COS has branched out from its initial mission, establishing programs for home-heating assistance and emergency needs as well as a voucher program with the Kennebunk Hannaford supermarket, a fresh produce pantry and holiday meal baskets. Most recently, COS also partnered with area businesses to create Food 4 Thought, which sends qualifying children home with backpacks full of food to help feed their families over the weekends. Currently running at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel, Food 4 Thought is expected to expand across RSU 21 next year.

“The need is real, and a lot of people don’t even realize it,” Jones said.

That’s because the Kennebunks region is often thought of as an affluent community. A recent survey of home listings conducted by real estate agency Coldwell Banker found Kennebunk and Kennebunkport have the most expensive homes in Maine, with an average listing of $517,153. But, Jones says, there are, in fact, two Kennebunks. While the coastal area may host many a well-stocked kitchen, at the inland areas net worth drops dramatically.

“Some of them are second- and third-generation descendants of the original farmers and fishermen of the area, and they just don’t have the wherewithal, especially with the most recent recession over the past decade, to meet basic needs as their taxes continue to go up and up,” Jones explained.

Increasingly, Jones said, those in need tend to be the elderly.

“We also are seeing in increase in multi-generational homes in need,” she said.

Last month, COS delivered meals to 136 people – 82 adults, 23 teenagers and 31 children. That included 35 family requests from Kennebunk, nine from Arundel and five from Kennebunkport, bringing the year-to-date total to 1,196 persons served.

And that’s just for the non-perishables, delivered for anonymous pickup at town offices, as arranged through each town’s general assistance office. The fresh produce pantry fed 230 people last month as well.

COS runs largely on donations. On Election Day this past Nov. 3, Kennebunkport voters donated 610 pounds of food and $1,143 in cash in a stuff-the-bus campaign. Meanwhile, last week, the local PTA delivered 1,770 pounds of food collected at RSU 21 schools.

“We were pretty bare before those two drives, but luckily we knew they were coming, because they do it every year,” Jones said. “Without this volunteer and financial support from the community, we would not be able to help those here in our community who need extra help to get them through a difficult time in their lives.”

It takes a lot of effort to provide that relief. COS enjoys regular help from more than 150 volunteers spread out fairly evenly among its 10 member churches, with a smattering of secular helpers. For many, Jones said, it’s a calling to serve their neighbors in need that drives them to chip in. All are volunteers, and all are appreciated, although few put in the 20-40 hours per week logged by Jones.

“I love it. I think it’s my mission. I think this is what God called me to do,” she said. “Yes, there are government programs, but that’s doesn’t cut it, it’s not enough, and more and more people fall in between the cracks, who don’t qualify for state aid. Their children deserve to have a decent life. And the elderly, these are people who have worked hard all their lives, and they deserve a lift at the end of it, because they can’t get by on what the government gives them. They just can’t.”

Recently, COS has hired Kennebunk marketing firm New Vision Custom Solutions to help with its brand awareness and fundraising. After all, the fuel assistance program runs to $30,000 per year, while the emergency aid program – which provides $500 checks that help with everything from medicines to eyeglasses to baby supplies – is a $20,000 annual need.

Even so, COS has not been in the business of blowing its own horn during its silver anniversary. But that doesn’t mean it’s going by completely unnoticed

“I think it’s an important milestone,” Jones said. “People keep trying to push us into becoming secular. I can’t believe we’ve resisted that this long, but for as long as I remain executive director I hope for that to continue. We don’t preach to those we help. We don’t allow it. But we feel that, as Christians, we have a responsibility to help the poor.”

COS does not require proof of need, beyond what local General Assistance offices do to make referrals for those who don’t qualify for municipal aid. As such, Jones says she knows there are some people who take advantage of the generosity of COS volunteers and donors. Still, she says, that does not matter. For every one person who may be taking advantage simply because food and money are given, there may be 10 or more who are truly in need.

And, more importantly, every now and then a call will come in from someone who no longer needs COS help.

“Oftentimes,” Jones says, “I’ll get a phone call from a former client who will say, ‘I just wanted you to know, I’m back to work, I’m in a new house I can afford, I just want you to know I’m doing great.’

“And that, to me, that’s what it’s all about.”

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