WATERVILLE — After months of pushing to establish a free and nutritious hot meals program in the city since the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen closed last year, the Rev. Maureen Ausbrook finally has her wish.

City councilors last week decided to give $15,000 to help cover the first few months of rent and give City Manager Steve Daly the go-ahead to find a space and negotiate a lease. The council did not have to vote on the expenditure since the money is already in the city budget.

“I’m extremely grateful,” Ausbrook said Monday.

A group run by the Rev. Maureen Ausbrook, left, shown in September with Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho, will receive $15,000 to launch a hot meals program in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file photo

Ausbrook operates Starfish Village Ministry, a group that helps to stabilize families and is under the umbrella of the Waterville United Church of Christ.

The church and its Essentials Closet, which provides free items for people and families in need, are located in the basement of The Elm at 21 College Avenue. The city is looking at a couple of possible locations for the meals program, The Elm included.

Ausbrook said the city money allows Starfish to open a meal site immediately and she hopes other organizations will help with the program, to be called Stone Soup Cafe.

“This is a wonderful boost, and it gets it rolling, and it doesn’t take money from the other work that we do,” Ausbrook said. “We anticipate having fundraisers, and the major cost is rent. Food comes from various sources. This money will be dedicated to offset the first five or six months of rent.”

City Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, pushed for the effort after hearing Ausbrook’s pitch and spending time with a couple and their children who had been homeless until Starfish Village helped them get them back on their feet and housed. The father also now has a full-time job.

Foss, who helps deliver meals to homeless people over Thanksgiving and is familiar with the homeless situation in Waterville, said Starfish succeeds in helping people become stabilized.

“They’re putting people up and giving them a little boost and saying, ‘We care about you,'” he said.

Foss said he hopes the hot meals program gets additional funding, takes off and becomes successful.

Daly was on vacation Monday, but Mayor Jay Coelho said the money Starfish will receive is a small investment in helping feed hungry people in the community. It makes no sense, he said, that people don’t have enough to eat in the richest nation in the world.

“I’m just happy that we’re doing it,” Coelho said. “I’m just happy that we’re being serious about helping the homeless population in our area.”

He said the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter does a commendable job, and the meals program will be a means of helping to fill in the cracks.

The Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen served hot meals for 40 years before it closed in July 2020. The kitchen was housed in the basement of Sacred Heart Church on Pleasant Street and paid rent to the church, though it was not officially affiliated with it. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland put the church property on the market in March 2020.

Ausbrook said the meals program will be open 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch, and 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays for breakfast. Staff will be cautious as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“We will be following (U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) guidelines and working with a team of nurses, advising us of protocols and best practices,” she said.

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