Ethan Thombs delivers meals Wednesday, prepared by Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop, to the Vienna Fire Station. Volunteers at the camp have been cooking, packing and distributing meals for children who are out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

VIENNA — It was a little more than a month ago that Norman Thombs began distributing lunches to Monmouth students who are out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, the executive director for Camp Mechuwana has expanded that service to three locations — adding Winthrop and Vienna — and 1,000 meals are being handed out each week.

“Today, they did about 120 in Winthrop,” Thombs said at about noon on Wednesday. “We’re in the middle of this here (in Monmouth) and we’re at 70. Vienna was 48.”

“It’s increased,” he added, comparing the beginning of the meal delivery to today. “Especially last week and this week. We’ve seen steady increases.”

Camp Mechuwana is a summer food program site already, but once Thombs realized students might need food because school buildings were closed, he reached out to the state to start offering meals now.

After the program kicked off in Monmouth, he said it took about 10 days before Winthrop schools reached out.

“They were struggling with trying to get enough personnel to do the meals,” he said, “so we basically took over.”

Cornelia Brown, interim superintendent for Winthrop schools, said the district has partnered with Camp Mechuwana on other endeavors in the past and it seemed like an appropriate time to do so again.

“It turned out we were both providing the same service,” she said. “We talked and had a good conversation about how we could collaborate.”

Winthrop has staff volunteering to deliver meals to families who are unable to come to the school to get them, Brown said, adding the district’s meal count is about 300 per week.

“It’s been a great collaboration,” she said. “We’re very appreciative of what they do.”

While Winthrop is not providing food or financial support on a regular basis, Brown noted the school committee at its April 8 meeting voted to ensure the camp would be paid for providing meals during the school vacation week. Mechuwana is reimbursed by the state for 80% of its cost to provide the meals.

“It was understood that meals served during vacation week would not be reimbursable,” Brown said. “The school committee felt it was important that Mechuwana be made whole, and decided that if the meals are not reimbursable, we will pay for them for the week that we’re on vacation.”

Camp Mechuwana is at the Monmouth Town Office from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, at Winthrop Grade School from 11 a.m. to noon on Monday and Wednesday and at the Vienna Fire Station at about 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m. on Friday.

“We get people coming from all over the place. The rule is there are no town lines. We go to certain areas,” Thombs said. “At least in Monmouth and Winthrop, we know we have people from other towns, but that’s OK.”

Volunteers were in Vienna on Wednesday, although Thombs said that was because it was vacation week.

“We’re trying to help out during the week,” he said Wednesday. “We haven’t missed a day, even though today we’re freezing.”

Vienna Fire Chief Brian Church, left, collects meals Wednesday from volunteer delivery driver Ethan Thombs at the Vienna Fire Station. Volunteers at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop have been cooking, packing and distributing meals for children who are out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Vienna Fire Chief Brian Church said he and his wife, Laura, both worked with Thombs at Camp Mechuwana, so they already had a relationship with him. But, Church said, the fire station would still have been willing to be a site for the meal delivery.

“The need is there,” he said, “so we do it.”

In her role as pastor of North Vienna United Methodist Church, and as a former teacher, Laura Church said she knows many families in Vienna, and how to connect those who might benefit from having the meals. She described her role in the program as a “middleman.”

“What Norm had me do was get the word out to this area that there were meals available, either during the week or especially for the weekends,” Laura Church said.

“So, every Thursday, I send him a message to tell him how many meals are needed.”

Church and her daughter then meet the Camp Mechuwana staff at the Vienna Fire Station on Friday mornings to take delivery of the food.

“We go through it and make sure everyone has what they need,” Laura Church said. “When people come, we put on our masks and lug the meals out to the cars. People are really grateful. They’re just really grateful.”

Thombs said he has many volunteers, and food for the meals is coming from the camp’s regular distributors.

“We have worked with a few (food donors) very specifically because it has to be things that go into the lunch program,” Thombs said. “There are some people that have a hard time with transportation, but we have had some wonderful neighbors bringing food to people.

“There have also been some incredible teachers who have been doing that for their students, who they know are in bad situations in terms of being able to get here. That’s been really great.”

Financial contributions are most helpful, Thombs said, adding many people have already donated money to help cover the difference between the cost of the food and the state’s 80% reimbursement.

“People have been helping us fund the program,” Thombs said. “We get reimbursed, but it doesn’t cover all the expenses.”

Those who want to donate should send contributions to Camp Mechuwana, P.O. Box 277, Winthrop ME 04364. Donors should indicate their financial support is for the feeding program.

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