WATERVILLE — Caitlyn Young thought long and hard last year about what Girl Scout project she could undertake to try to earn a Gold Award — the highest accolade a Girl Scout can achieve.

A Waterville Senior High School senior at the time, Young wanted the project to benefit people and help them to learn valuable life skills.

So, she decided to develop a vegetable garden at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter where she could not only help feed guests fresh and nutritious food, but also teach them how to plant, tend and harvest it themselves — skills that would benefit them long into the future. The project was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Young, now 18, eventually completed it.

She solicited donations from businesses, held a bottle drive, raised money, and built a 4-by-8-foot raised bed garden, now bearing tomato, cabbage, broccoli, cucumber and lettuce plants which she got to present to the community Saturday as she was given the Gold Award.

“Thank you for everyone’s support and hard work to make this project a reality,” she said, to applause.

Jim Grenier hands Caitlyn Young a tablecloth Saturday as they prepare to unveil Young’s community garden at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

About 20 people, including Waterville High School Principal Brian Laramee and state Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, turned out for the event. All were wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic. Laramee said Young is known in the school as a kind, compassionate and caring young lady and he is excited to see what her future holds. Young plans to attend Thomas College this fall to study accounting.

“It’s students like Caitlyn that make me so proud to be principal at Waterville Senior High School,” Laramee said. “Thank you, Caitlyn.”

Her donation to the homeless shelter comes at a time when the shelter has had to change the way it operates due to the pandemic — and rethink ways to help serve guests by relocating some to hotels and strengthening partnerships with the city, faith-based groups and others to help serve the homeless.

“We’re also mapping ways we can work with people before they become literally homeless,” shelter Director Katie Spencer White said Saturday via email. “For example, how can we provide support to people who are at risk of eviction? The best way to keep a person out of the homeless services system is to keep them housed. How can we provide information, advice, guidance and access to resources to support people at immediate risk of homelessness as well as many of the fantastic landlords in the community? Strengthening our prevention services is key to how we will be operating during COVID-19.”

The shelter’s operating budget has increased significantly over the last year, from about $1 million to about $1.5 million, in part to help sustain the changes the shelter has made to make because of the pandemic, according to Spencer White.

“In order to respond effectively to the pandemic, we are having to find new sources of revenue while at the same time seeking to solidify and maintain existing sources,” Spencer White said. “Some of this increase in revenue will come from HUD through Maine State Housing, and we have seen increased support from partners like the Maine Community Foundation, the United Way, and Kennebec Savings Bank — to name just a few — which is critical. But we’ve always been a community nonprofit and rely on local donations for a significant part of our revenue. We are incredibly grateful for the continuing support of our friends, partners, and donors right here in Waterville and surrounding towns. Every little bit helps and we need it now more than ever.”

Young’s garden project is a welcome effort during the pandemic, according to Spencer White, who said the shelter feeds  25 to 50 households a day and runs a community food pantry which is open to the public at 1 p.m. Fridays, as well as by appointment.

“So we would need our own small farm to make a dent in our food needs,” she said. “But gardens are so much more than the goods they produce. Anyone who has ever gone outside and put their fingers in the dirt and nurtured plants until they produce edible food knows that the benefits transcend what we are able to eat.”

Spencer White said people experiencing homelessness are in great stress and many have experienced terrible trauma.

“Gardens allow people to forget that trauma, if only for a little while,” she said. “Gardens remind us of who we are and what we are capable of doing. They are places of meditation and stillness. They are places to practice mindfulness. They take us away from the stress, chaos and trauma of daily life and give us an opportunity to create something life affirming.”

GARDEN CELEBRATION

At Saturday’s recognition, Young was wearing a vest covered with patches and stars she has earned in Girls Scouts, beginning in first grade.

She said she put 90 hours of work into the garden project, for which she received donations of building and other materials from places such as The Home Depot, McCormack Building Supply, Ware-Butler Inc., Somerset Stone & Stove, C.B. Davis Co. and Longfellow’s Greenhouses. As part of her work, she wrote and put together a book for the shelter with instructions about how to plant, tend and harvest a garden.

Young’s garden, which bears a plaque with her name and the title “The Giving Garden,” sits in the playground area behind the shelter on Colby Street, near other raised garden beds that produce tomatoes and other plants. Catherine Haskell, who heads up the shelter’s human resources and volunteer centers, said Young presented the proposal last year to develop a garden and worked hard to raise funds and solicit donations.

“We are very fortunate,” Haskell said. “A lot of local farms will donate produce, too. This really does supplement that. The guests learn how to garden, choose healthy food to eat and the children learn about fresh, healthy produce.”

Donna Rueger, leader of Young’s Troop 1254, said she was proud of Young and her determination to see the project through.

“This doesn’t happen very often,” she said of a Scout receiving the Gold Award. “It’s a lot of work. Job well done.”

State Rep. White also praised her efforts.

“Congratulations on behalf of the state of Maine, and as your representative of District 109, I just wanted to congratulate you,” he said. “Thank you for all you’re doing and keep up the great work.”

Tanya Fossett, the shelter’s director of development and communications, said the shelter is so excited Young developed the garden.

“I was blown away when I came in and it was done,” Fossett said.

The shelter’s mission, she said, is to house people and care for them while they are guests. The shelter believes the people it serves have inherent strength, building relationships of mutual trust and respect are important, and that housing is a right for all people, according to Fossett.

Caitlyn Young prepares to attach a plaque Saturday at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville. The signage identifies the community service project Young took on to earn her Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Projects like this are perfect because it gives our guests something to do,” she said of the garden. “It provides food, which is what we need for our guests, and that is never going to change. I appreciate people thinking outside the box.”

Felecia Gaulin, exalted ruler of Waterville Elks Lodge 905, presented Young a certificate of merit from the Grand Lodge. Young’s friends and fellow troopmates, Phoenix Gatlin, 16, and Mary Granholm, 17, also spoke.

Young’s mother, Jennifer Young, said she is extremely proud of her daughter.

“It took a while to get all the details in place with the council because it has to be approved by the state council,” she said. She had to come up with an idea and the council has a committee that approves the project. Once she got the approval, then the hard worked started.”

SHELTER STABILITY

Meanwhile, Spencer White said the shelter is doing well, all things considered.

“When the pandemic started, our goal shifted to keeping guests, tenants and staff safe and healthy, and as of today, we have achieved that goal,” she said. “We faced innumerable challenges and have had to rethink everything we do but, if anything, we are stronger than when this started in March. Everyone pulled together. Our staff faced their fears and the early confusion and have risen to the challenge of many of us transitioning to working from home while others of us maintained 24/7 operations. Our guests did everything we asked and were partners in ensuring that every guideline from the CDC, HUD, and the office of the governor has been implemented. Our spirits are good and we feel positive about our ability to confront the challenges ahead.”

Spencer White said the shelter is only about $10,000 off where officials predicted it would be when the budget was approved in February, which she deems a success.

But the next phase is looming, and as courts reopen in August, the shelter expects there will be a tidal wave of evictions, she said. People with low incomes have been stable through the pandemic because of increases in unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits and other sources, according to Spencer White. People who are poor and vulnerable, she said, have had more cash in their accounts to meet essential needs such as food and utilities.

“As those funding sources go back to pre-pandemic levels and if low-income workers continue to suffer the worse effects of economic downturn,” she said, “we are expecting a huge increase in demand for our services, especially for families who often bear the brunt of economic hardship. We’ve done wonderfully in terms of figuring out how to serve people in a pandemic, but the real test is coming this fall and winter as we seek to increase our services and impact. We’re only getting started.”

Asked how many people are living at the shelter now and how many children, Spencer White said the shelter doesn’t typically list the daily number of children, “in the interests of safety.”

“But it remains the case that approximately one-fourth of our guests are children under the age of 13,” she said. “Like all emergency shelters across the state, our census is down at the moment because social distancing means that we’ve lost half of our bed capacity.”

She said the shelter is finally in a position to take new people in.

“One of the things most people don’t realize is that once a person or a household is admitted to the shelter, they are assigned a bed and remain with us until they transition to permanent housing. Because of the pandemic, those transitions to housing have taken longer because the entire system has slowed down — apartment viewings, home inspections, even the availability of housing is down. And of course, safety is our paramount concern. Thankfully we are now in a position to start admitting new guests because we can do it safely. We are doing it in stages and we won’t be back to our pre-COVID numbers inside the shelter until after the pandemic. But there are other ways to support people experiencing homelessness and we are tackling this problem from multiple angles.”

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