BRUNSWICK — Maybe George Mitchell saw something of himself in Lily Pearmain.
The former U.S. senator was back at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick Wednesday morning to mark the expansion of its Union Street headquarters.
He had been there before; after Wednesday’s press conference, MCHPP administrators said Mitchell’s continuing support for the program may stem from a relationship he formed with one of the organization’s clients in October.
Mitchell toured the facilities last fall as part of his campaign to bring awareness to the issue of childhood hunger in Maine. It was on that visit that Mitchell met Lily Pearmain, a young mother of two.
“I was very nervous,” Pearmain recalled in an interview Wednesday. Knowing Mitchell would be visiting, Pearmain said, “she’d just looked him up on Wikipedia,” and was floored by what she read.
“But he put me at ease,” she said. “He just asked me about my life.”
Mitchell, Pearmain, and her older daughter, who is 5, sat in a small room away from the commotion of the pantry and kitchen while Pearmain laid out her life story.
Originally from Acton, Massachusetts, she comes from a line of what she describes as “deadbeat” fathers, who emotionally and physically abused the women in her family. Pearmain said she felt destined to repeat the mistakes of her mother and grandmother.
But she moved to Maine in 1997, and things changed when she was later accepted to public housing in Brunswick.
Her children now attend the Brunswick elementary schools, and she has been connected to a network of programs that support families like hers.
“The most influential,” she said, “was (Mid Coast Hunger Prevention).”
As Mitchell left that day, he reflected with MCHPP Program Director Ethan Minton about the conversation he’d had with Pearmain.
“‘She’s doing everything she can to make the best of very difficult circumstances,’” Minton remembered Mitchell saying. “‘With a couple of twists in the road, that could have been me.'”
Nearly half a year later, the hunger program has raised $425,000 of a $500,000 capital campaign to add space that will increase the number of people it can serve, and is making a final public push to meet the goal. According to data from Feeding America, a national nonprofit, one in four children in Maine are food insecure.
For the press event Wednesday, Mitchell was invited back, and Pearmain was asked to give a speech.
“Thanks to Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, and a host of other local, state, and federal programs, my children have no clue that, as a family, we struggle with food insecurity,” Pearmain said. “Thanks to the people of MCHPP, my children have a sense of community I hadn’t experienced until very recently.”
Mitchell went to the microphone afterwards and spoke of how, when he was 16 years old and a senior at Waterville High School, his father lost his job.
The older Mitchell had been working since he was 10, and for essentially 40 years straight after that. The loss, the senator recalled Wednesday, “nearly destroyed him and my family.”
But the young George Mitchell found a way out, hitchhiking to an admissions interview at Bowdoin College and working his way through four years there, before going on to achieve a celebrated career in American law, politics and public policy.
Now, in 2016, the world is changing, Mitchell said.
“We’re living through a vast technological and trade revolution,” he said, that creates vast amounts of wealth for some, but not equally.
He urged those listening to support programs like MCHPP that alleviate this gap, but also to work “to change those aspects of our society that make it necessary for so many people to depend … on programs like this.”
Mitchell, Pearmain, and MCHPP staff and volunteers then headed out the back doors with shovels to break ground for the new building.
With the sun just breaking through the clouds, the young mother and the former U.S. senator dug their spades into the dirt, turning over the first earth for an expanding hunger program.
BRUNSWICK — Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program is raising $500,000 to build an 800-square-foot expansion to its existing food pantry, as well as a 1,400-square-foot building for additional food storage.
Executive Director Karen Parker said that since 2003, the number of visits to the hunger program’s food pantry has increased by 80 percent, and meals made in the soup kitchen have grown 40 percent.
She also said during peak times, waits for the food pantry can reach two hours. The expansion will provide additional waiting space inside, so clients do not have to stand in the parking lot.
MCHPP hopes to begin construction April 14, and complete work in five to six months.
— Walter Wuthmann
Lily Pearmain, left, volunteers Max, 8, and Oliver, 5, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program Chairwoman Jennie Ryan, Executive Director Karen Parker, and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell break ground Wednesday, March 16, for expansion of the hunger program’s Union Street headquarters in Brunswick.