SKOWHEGAN — As a social worker, Jeffrey Johnson said he knows well the struggles people face that often lead to homelessness.
And he had a couple fields and a barn he wasn’t using.
So Johnson, who owns property on Bigelow Hill Road, approached the Rev. Richard Berry, who runs the nearby men’s homeless shelter at Trinity Evangelical Free Church on McClellan Street, to see how he could help.
“I said, ‘I’ve got this farm. I have this idea. What do you think?’ It kind of went from there,” he said.
The two-story Skowhegan Miracle Homeless Shelter capable of housing 60 men marked its official opening day Jan. 21. Its next project is to start a vegetable garden to feed the men at the shelter and create revenue.
The shelter is also going to sell eggs as well as live piglets and pork meat.
“I didn’t go looking for a farm. The farm came looking for us,” Berry said.
The residents of the shelter will do the planting, weeding, harvesting and selling at a farm stand, said Derek Soucy, who will oversee the effort.
He hopes to plant corn, beets, onions and other vegetables in the soil that Goodwin farm, in Benton, is volunteering to till and fertilize.
“There’s a lot of talent at the shelter,” Soucy said.
Levi Pooler, 30, one of the shelter residents who will help with the garden, studied soil science at Southern Maine Community College, he said.
Pooler, a vegetarian, said he hopes the garden is “a model not only for other shelters but communities.” It’s more fulfilling for people to work for their food than to be given it, he said.
“It teaches people work ethic, and it’s very enlightening to plant a seed and nurture it and watch it grow,” he said.
Growing up in Massachusetts, shelter resident Ted Treannie, 47, said his parents had a garden. The first crop is always challenging, he said, but he can’t wait to show the others what vegetables grow best in what light, plan out their growing time and “get right down in the mud.”
“I think it’s great. It’s very therapeutic, gardening,” he said.
Berry said the garden will not only raise some money — the shelter runs on donations — but occupy the men during the day.
“They’re going to learn to work, and it gives them something to do with their time,” he said.
The farm stand will also sell items the men craft out of wood, such as tables and chairs. Berry already has orders for two cabinets.
“We just keep adding,” he said. “We’re going to be Hinckley South pretty soon here,” he joked, referring to Good Will-Hinckley, an agriculture-focused high school.
The shelter provides housing for about 50 men. In addition to a commercial kitchen, dining area, laundry room and living space, it offers a free health clinic. Residents receive three meals each day.
The men are welcomed to the shelter 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Residents have to follow set rules — such as doing chores and attending prayer and Bible groups — but they may stay as long as they wish. Caseworker agencies help integrate the men back into society.
In the last three years or so, about 600 to 700 men have passed through the shelter.
Erin Rhoda — 612-2368