THE WATERVILLE COMMUNITY has a lot of excellent resources for people from all walks of life, including organizations that serve the poor and homeless and those with mental illnesses. We have great recreation facilities, venues for the arts and networks of people who support all those activities.

There are also lesser-known entities that operate below the radar but are just as critical to the community’s well-being.

Women’s Initiative is such a place.

Martha Dempski, 56, opened it nearly five years ago in the basement of The Center at 93 Main St. downtown. At the time, her only startup capital was hope, passion and a strong belief in her mission.

That mission was to create a safe and warm setting for women, including those who need nurturing, to gather, socialize over a cup of coffee, support each other and learn to knit, crochet, sew and weave.

How would Women’s Initiative pay the rent and survive?

By selling the handcrafted items, not only at its own venue, but also at craft fairs and lawn sales.

Through sheer determination and hard work, and by operating under the supportive umbrella of the community group, REM, Dempski has kept the organization afloat. And importantly, she approaches the women who enter with a keen understanding of the human condition.

Having lived her younger years with an abusive spouse, Dempski learned to dull the pain with alcohol. She knows what it means to suffer in silence and how important it is to reach out to others.

Now 22 years in recovery, she leads a blessed and much happier life with a husband who is loving and supportive of her work. That work, by the way, is all-volunteer.

After putting her heart and soul into Women’s Initiative, Dempski learned last July that the rent was more than tripling, forcing her to find another place.

On Wednesday, she announced plans to move by March 1 to the bottom floor of the former Centerpoint Community Church on West River Road. Centerpoint last year moved to a new location farther south on that road, in the former Sparetime Recreation bowling alley.

Lisa Riportella, wife of lead church pastor Craig Riportella, heard Dempski speak a few months ago at a Sunrise Rotary Club meeting about the need for a new location, and the Riportellas offered the space for rent.

“It’s a wonderful place for us,” Dempski said. “It has an office and a kitchen and windows all around. It’s perfect. It couldn’t be more perfect. I am so thrilled.”

At Women’s Initiative, women take free classes in sewing, quilting, rug-making and more, using donated material. Dempski feels strongly that creating with one’s hands and being able to sell the items to help sustain the organization helps build self-esteem.

“It really is a barter mentality — like, I’m going to teach you this and you’ll learn something you can utilize; but if you can help us by making something to sell as opposed to making a financial contribution, that is great. People can’t afford a $5 or $10 a month donation, but they contribute this way. It’s a very unique, different type of a model.”

The organization’s current space resembles a home, all on one floor and with no walls. There’s a large living room area with soft couches and chairs, a sewing room, craft table, reading nook with books and displays of homemade jewelry, baskets, rag rugs and beautiful scarves. The scent of coffee brewing, splashes of color everywhere and warm lights create a welcoming atmosphere.

When Dempski started Women’s Initiative in 2011, I interviewed her in that room, which was empty except for a couple of tables and a coffee pot. The transformation that has occurred over five years is striking.

Dempski says the center averages 2,000 visits a year from women ages 20 to 90 who are mostly from the Waterville area, but also include people from places such as Augusta and Palmyra.

“Anybody can come, and it’s not just for troubled people,” she says. “People say, ‘I don’t have a mental illness, so I don’t belong here,’ but we’re for all women. Our goal is to welcome everybody.”

Dempski helped a young woman who is legally blind learn how to sew, and they made a beautiful wall hanging. Many visitors, including those who are shy, form lasting friendships there.

“You see people not able to socialize come out of their shell and laugh and joke with others,” she said.

On Feb. 12, in honor of Valentine’s Day, the women will hang 1,000 handmade scarves, hats and mittens in The Concourse downtown for anyone who wants them. Many of the pieces will have been made by women working in their homes with donated materials.

In a testament to the value of Dempski’s efforts, community organizations recommend the Women’s Initiative to people.

“We get a lot of referrals from different counseling centers and mental health organizations, so Women’s Initiative is part of people’s wellness plan,” she said. Judy MacKenzie, a registered nurse and woman’s health navigator for MaineGeneral Health who visits on the last Friday of each month to talk about health issues, according to Dempski.

“We encourage any organization that is a resource for women to get their information to us so we can then have it available when they need it.”

The ASPIRE program pays women to work at Women’s Initiative as a way to help them re-enter the workforce, and an organization that employs women over 55 sends workers there to sort donated materials, teach crafts and tidy up work spaces.

Dempski’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. She has received a REM Award for volunteerism and community service. She also was honored by Business and Professional Women with a state Woman of the Year Award.

She said she is able to help others because of her own experiences.

“It’s coming from the hard life that I’ve had. I have been through so many of the struggles, the difficult struggles that women go through. All the things in my life that were hard brought me to a place where I’m able to share with women that they can be OK. Utilize your resources and just keep trying. I’ve come through it and I’m OK, so you’re going to come through this and you’ll be OK, depending on your choices.”

Keeping Women’s Initiative self-sustaining is a constant challenge. The organization needs crafting supplies, money and volunteers, as well as a grant writer to help apply for financial assistance. The center is open 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and may be reached at 692-0290.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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