AUGUSTA — With wind chill expected to dip well below zero the next few days, Rob Gordon said it was fortuitous that the Augusta Community Warming Center opened on Thursday.
The center, in its second year at 9 Pleasant St. in the lower level of St. Mark’s Parish Hall, opened its doors for the season Thursday morning. Gordon, executive director of the United Way of Kennebec Valley, said it will be open every day, including holidays, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. until March 31.
“This is our eighth year, so we’ve seen some very, very cold weather,” Gordon said. “It’s a warm, safe and secure place where people can come in and connect with other people and gather and socialize.”
According to the National Weather Service in Gray, central Maine will be under a wind chill advisory from Thursday evening through Friday morning. That means wind chill temperature will fall between 20 and 29 below zero, meteorologist Tom Hawley said. And after the bitter cold, Saturday’s forecast calls for a range of 5 to 8 inches of snow with a high of 27 and a low of 24 degrees.
Though the center had been open only a few hours, Gordon said it had already received generous donations of sleeping bags, blankets and jackets. Carrie Young, of Manchester, said she belongs to a Facebook group called Welcoming New Mainers that mentioned the warming center opening, so she decided to bring some donations.
“We should all be more open to helping,” Young said, who brought hats, mittens, sheets and household items. “It seems like part of the American ideology is that we should all be self-sufficient, which is ridiculous, so we all close our hearts off a little bit to try and not think about what’s happening.”
One of the good things about donating to the warming center, Young said, is that the items are used almost immediately.
“I think I’d heard about the warming center before, but it really wasn’t until I joined that Facebook group that I was reminded of it,” Young said. “I should be bringing stuff here rather than Goodwill, where people have to buy the stuff.”
Gordon and former center director Rob Shore said the center is more about just providing a warm place to spend time; it’s also about the human interaction.
“People come here for the fellowship,” said Shore, who was serving as manager on duty Thursday. “What they get here is not just the warmth. You can come here and meet people and get some social connection and a sense of community.”
There is peer support that is an unintentional byproduct of people getting together in the center, Shore said.
“Somebody will always show somebody else where they got something or how they did something,” Shore said. “Human contact is really what it’s about, which is very important from a psychological standpoint.”
Christopher Currier, most recently of Dexter, recently was released from jail after having violated probation conditions stemming from an attempted murder conviction in 2006. Currier served 10 years in prison and said he heard about the warming center through word of mouth and couldn’t be more appreciative of what it provides.
“It’s a wonderful place, and the people have been great,” Currier said. “I’m just getting out and getting back into the community, so I like meeting interesting people.”
Currier said he’s received some boots and a warm coat from the center and definitely plans to be back as he continues to get his life in order. Being able to connect with new people is important to Currier, he said.
“I came from a big family that isn’t a part of my life, so to be around people is very important,” Currier said. “I don’t ever want to (go back), and I want to be around nice people and show that I can uphold my social agreement by not doing anything to break the law.”
Without the assistance of St. Mark’s Parish, Gordon said, the warming center wouldn’t be possible.
“Their generosity is the key that holds it all together,” he said.
Users of the warming center have access to hot tea and coffee and supplies of warm clothes, and they have the opportunity to take items from Addie’s Attic, a clothing closet in the same space as the warming center. Addie’s Attic is open twice per month and people can take up to 25 items per household, but warming center guests can take advantage of the clothing site when in the center.
Gordon said the people who use the warming center during the day sometimes go back to wherever they are living, sometimes go to homeless shelters or end up sleeping outside. He said the staff and volunteers encourage people not to sleep outside, especially with temperature expected to be frigid in the next few days.
“The idea is to be a no-barrier place where anybody can come in, spend the day, stay warm and connect with people who are friendly,” Gordon said.
Shore, who has been retired for several years, said there’s been a pretty good turnout for the first day, which tells him people have been waiting for the center to open. He thinks the need is probably greater than when he ran the center a few years ago.
“We have lots of resources here, and it’s just a chance for people to get together and find out where they can go and get things,” he said. “It’s really easy to get people connected to resources.”
With the weather turning colder, the American Automobile Association of Northern New England and the American Red Cross put out advisories Thursday giving people tips on how to protect themselves, their pets and their vehicles during next several days.
Pet owners should be aware that salt and chemicals used to melt snow can irritate a pet’s paws, and antifreeze is a deadly poison to pets. Pet owners should also bring their animals inside to protect them from the severe cold, according to a Red Cross news release.
Pat Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA Northern New England, said in a news release that a weak battery might not have enough strength to start a vehicle in such conditions. The release said that AAA came to the aid of a record number of motorists last year to boost batteries, thaw locks and tow vehicles to heated garages to thaw frozen vehicle components.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663