If Ken Stevens has his way, 20 new businesses will open in Waterville, 50 new jobs will be filled and food will be more readily available to those in need.

These may sound like unrelated issues, but in Stevens’ world, they are critically interconnected.

Stevens, 68, runs a little-known but hugely important operation at 18 Lithgow St. in Winslow called the North East Dream Center.

It’s difficult to explain all that Stevens does, but in a nutshell, the center is a hub for food collection and distribution to about 32 food pantries and soup kitchens in Somerset and northern Kennebec counties.

Stevens has a woodworking shop in the warehouse, the profits of which support the food hub. He trains and employs people who typically are unemployable because they are ex-prison inmates or homeless, or they have few working skills.

The woodworking shop produces gorgeous pine furniture that he sells wholesale.

Stevens, pastor of Set Free Christian Fellowship, also counsels people in crisis, gives clothes to the poor and is available to those in need, day or night.

He does not get paid for his work and doesn’t expect to be.

“My mission is meeting people at their point of need,” he said.

I met him Tuesday at the warehouse, a large facility with shelves of food, bins for produce and paper bags stapled shut with food for elderly people.

“Two hundred and sixty people come once a month for the food,” Stevens told me. “The bags contain canned fruit, canned meat, canned vegetables, powdered milk, cereal, juices, rice. It’s a Senior Spectrum program.”

The food he collects in the warehouse comes from a variety of sources, including truck drivers who have leftover loads or shipments that are refused for one reason or another, farmers, and produce harvested by jail inmates.

Stevens has a large network of volunteers who step in to help on short notice.

“We share with other people in the state who have surplus or excess food,” he said.

Some food pantry officials come to pick up the food. Stevens delivers to others, renting trucks and paying for gas through his woodworking profits.

If someone needs food and an area pantry is closed, Stevens will help, according to Wanda Steward, U.S. Department of Agriculture coordinator for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. He is a man who works behind the scenes and out of the limelight, rounding up volunteers to help move food. If a trucker calls Steward on a Friday night, for instance, and says he has a load of food that must be donated immediately, Stevens will drop everything, help unload and store it and distribute it where needed.

“He really does a lot for the community,” Steward said. “He’s helped me out many times.”

Now Stevens needs help. He wants to move his operations to a large building he has found for rent in Waterville, expand the food hub and add refrigeration equipment so perishable produce won’t spoil. He plans to open a discount merchandise retail store there and continue the woodworking operation.

A big part of the plan is to launch a manufacturing incubator that would provide administrative support and space for 20 startup businesses, as well as jobs and training for people, including those who are “unemployable.”

However, he needs $15,000 to $20,000 to move the food, woodworking shop and office to the Waterville site, and he has been out soliciting funds.

Kimberly N. Lindlof, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, is on board. Lindlof pitched in $100 of her own money, and the chamber contributed $100, she said.

“I’m not doing his fundraising, but I want to give him a positive start,” Lindlof said. “His passion and determination are compelling. If he, in fact, can develop a manufacturing incubator, which would be something unique, it’s very desirable for our region. I hope that he is able to make this happen.”

Winslow Town Manager Michael Heavener said that without Stevens, there would be a big void in the effort to feed the needy.

“I don’t see anyone who could fill his shoes,” he said. “If he can make it (the manufacturing incubator) work, it would be a tremendous asset, to not only Waterville, but to the area, and give us the opportunity for additional funding, storage and food distribution.”

Steward, of KVCAP, has been spreading the word that the donations would go to a worthy cause.

“We don’t want anyone to go hungry,” she said.

Stevens, whose phone number is 692-2128 and whose email is [email protected], is a self-described workaholic.

He was born in Quincy, Mass., attended Norfolk County Agricultural High School, and later earned an associate’s degree in animal husbandry and dairy technology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He worked on a farm, managed a lumber company, got into the dairy business, owned a construction company, moved to Maine, started a farm and worked as state director of the surplus property program under then-Gov. James B. Longley.

From there, his life took an unexpected turn. He started making furniture, but in 1991, lost two fingers in a saw blade accident. They were reattached, but his life fell apart.

“I lost everything and became homeless. Giving up hope, I was on a plan to take my life,” he said.

At that point, he had an epiphany — that there was a plan for him, and the plan involved helping people.

“Twenty-four years later, here I am,” he said. “Did I have formal training? Yes. I got trained by the best — God’s spirit.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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