Theresa Khan breezes into the Waterville Area Warming Center on Water Street, saying good morning and placing her belongings on a long table in the corner.
It’s 7:30 a.m. Thursday and she has just come from the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, where she and her teenage son have lived the last couple of months.
Khan and her friend Bill Brown, also a shelter guest, go to the counter to get hot drinks before settling down for the day.
Khan, 43, is grateful for the warmth on this chilly day. She also appreciates the companionship of friends and the kindness of Megan Philbrick, a center staff member, and Heather Merrow, a volunteer, who help her feel at home here.
“There’s no drama — that’s No. 1 — and there’s no stress,” Khan says. “We can do what we want. We can watch TV; we can even sleep, and they have a great toy area for the children.”
The blond-haired, blue-eyed Khan smiles as she draws a blue parka off her shoulders.
“I even have this coat from here. I didn’t have a winter coat.”
For her and Brown, 51, the center is like a home. There’s a Christmas tree with white lights, sitting areas with couches and chairs, a table where puzzles are being put together, and stacks of games and books.
At the counter, Philbrick and Merrow are setting out doughnuts, crackers and other snacks; and soft music is playing from a laptop.
Khan explains that she left a $700-a-week job as a convenience store supervisor in Texas to come to Maine to take care of her mother, who was dying of cancer. Through a series of unfortunate incidents, she and her son became homeless.
“I’m trying to get disability because I have a degenerative disc and a degenerative knee. I have osteoarthritis and arthritis in my back. That’s what the specialist told me yesterday. They are going in and giving me a steroid shot in my back to help the pain.”
She said her son is in school, but the bus drops him off at the center in the afternoon.
“My son really likes it here,” she said. ” He gets on the Internet. There’s Wi-Fi here.”
Brown is a cab driver who lost his driver’s license in March when he was caught driving with a license that had been suspended because he did not pay a speeding ticket, he said. No longer able to work, he soon found himself homeless.
“I got to come up with $600 to pay it to get my license back. I’d love to go back to work right now. I’ve been driving cab the better part of 30 years. Right now I’m trying to get the VA to help me get housing.”
A Navy veteran, Brown is a solidly built, gregarious man who got the nickname “Papa Bear” at the homeless shelter because he is always helping people and giving advice, he said. While he and the others may stay at the shelter during they day, they choose to come here, where cellphone use is allowed and they may socialize with friends and meet new people. The warming center, he said, is a refuge.
“If I want to take a nap, I can kick back and take a nap. If I want to read, I can read a book or fill out paperwork. It’s nice and quiet most of the time.”
By about 8 a.m., a dozen people have come in. Merrow, the volunteer, settles down at Khan and Brown’s table. She has just worked all night as a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home, but is vibrant and chatty.
“I absolutely love doing this,” said Merrow, 46. “This is one of my favorite things because you get to talk to people, you’re warm, you’re inside. The other thing is, you get to bond with people, and each individual person has a story as to why they are here, and each story is unique and different.”
The caring and love that has gone into this warming center is evident, not only in the physical setup, but also in those who operate it, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.
The United Way of Mid-Maine Inc. manages the seasonal center, which opened for the first time last year.
United Way’s chief professional officer, Tina Chapman, says everyone is welcome to come, including those who turn down their heat during the day to conserve fuel so they may sleep comfortably at night. The center operates on $25,000 annually and is supported by Sunrise Rotary Club, Waterville Rotary Club, the city of Waterville, the town of Winslow, MaineGeneral Health, Bank of American Foundation and others. It welcomes donations, which may be mailed to United Way, care of Warming Center, P.O. Box 90, Waterville, ME 04901. Individually wrapped nonperishable snacks, coffee, cream, sugar and clothes also are appreciated and may be dropped off at the center.
There’s something great to be said for a community that takes care of its poor and those who are cold, hungry and lonely.
In addition to municipal welfare programs, there’s the homeless shelter, which provides housing and connections to resources, and area churches, which host a soup kitchen, food cupboard and sandwich program.
Waterville and its neighbors can be proud for recognizing that it’s an obligation to help those less fortunate; and they do it in an organized, generous and loving way.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]