WATERVILLE — Donations to Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen have reached $68,000 and more is trickling in, much to the delight — and relief — of kitchen director Dick Willette.

“It’s overwhelming,” Willette said Thursday. “I can’t believe the action of the people and how big their hearts are — even the ones on $600 a month in Social Security. They say, ‘I want to send you some money every month.’ You can’t beat that.”

Willette, 79, announced last month that the kitchen would have to close because of lack of consistent funding. The kitchen has been open 32 years and serves 100 to 125 hot meals a day, five days a week.

After a story about the kitchen’s plight ran in the Morning Sentinel, numerous businesses and individuals contributed, including those from as far away as Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona, Willette said.

The soup kitchen is housed in the basement of Sacred Heart Church and is run independently of the church and Corpus Christi Parish.

When it became obvious the kitchen was in dire straits and could not even pay a trash removal bill, however, Willette sought help from the Rev. Joseph Daniels, who put a plea out to parishioners for donations.

“When Father took up a collection, he said, ‘What do you think you’ll get out of it?'” Willette recalled. “I said, ‘probably $3,000 if we’re lucky.’ Well, we took in $8,900. I almost fainted. I can’t believe that the church was so generous to the soup kitchen.”

Others pledged to send money every month, a method that Willette said is the best way to ensure the kitchen has enough money to continue. With the current donations, he said, the kitchen is safe for the next two years.

“If I’m careful and I do what I’m supposed to do, I’m good to the end of 2014,” he said.

Willette was one of the founding members of the soup kitchen, which was started with the Rev. George Goudreau. Many people who had been donating consistently either died or could not continue giving because they had their own financial worries, according to Willette.

When word of the kitchen’s dilemma spread, businesses started donating food, and some donated in other ways.

Harold Withee, who had been selling condiments to the kitchen for a long time, came forward with a critical gift of free milk, Willette said.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about the milk for as long as that kitchen’s open and he’s in business,'” Willette said.

Central Maine Disposal offered the free use of a trash receptacle for a year and if the kitchen is still open, it will renew that gift for another year, Willette said.

“That’s over $100 a month. That’s a good donation.”

Harland Bragg of Sidney brought in corn on the cob, a treat the kitchen hasn’t had for three years; and Colleen Bean of Clinton brought in rolls, bread and other food left over from the Clinton Lions Fair, according to Willette.

“There is enough to feed many people.”

Willette has put $65,000 of the donated money into a money market account so that he can continue to transfer money for kitchen needs. He now has $3,000 in the kitchen’s checkbook, he said.

Recognizing that he won’t live forever, Willette has appointed longtime kitchen volunteer Mary Morin to be his assistant and take over if, for any reason, he cannot continue. Another longtime kitchen volunteer, John Pople, also will help run the kitchen in the future, he said.

Since the turnaround, the atmosphere in the kitchen, which has 42 volunteers, has gone from somber to lighthearted, according to Willette.

“I’m relieved,” he said. “My people are relieved. We’re all working happy again. If we need rubber gloves, I don’t have to go begging at a doctor’s office for them.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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