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Giving, receiving: Holiday lessons from Scarborough's Project GRACE

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Giving, receiving: Holiday lessons from Scarborough's Project GRACE

SCARBOROUGH — A community room at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church has been transformed by piles of presents and tables of clothing, toys and other items as volunteers work to wrap gifts with colorful papers, ribbons and bows in preparation for families who will pick them up this week.

It's all the work of Project GRACE, which since 2000 has received monetary and material gifts from the community that it in turn distributes to those in need both in Scarborough and in surrounding communities. Though the organization provides assistance throughout the year, it is now in high gear with its annual Giving Tree and Adopt-a-Family programs.

This holiday season, more than 60 families – more than 200 individuals – will benefit from the generosity of others through this local program, Director Mary Rollo said.

One of those families includes a mother and her two teenage daughters. Earlier this year, their husband and father, only 37, died unexpectedly after battling chronic pain for years from a work-related injury.

"Financially, he always said 'I'll be worth more to you dead than alive,'" his widow said. "We'd been living with very little."

The family has been receiving assistance from Project GRACE since its inception, but it doesn't mean it's been easy for them.

"At first, I felt a little funny," she said. "It's one thing to go to a food pantry, surrounded by people you know making tough choices between food and medicine, but it's another thing to say, 'I could use help with this or that, could you help me out?' – especially if you're already feeling the pressure of other things. So it was a little difficult at first because I wasn't sure what people were thinking or feeling."

When her daughters were younger, they did not know of Project GRACE's involvement. But when they became a bit older, she said she wanted them to know to understand there were people who cared about others and expressed their concern in practical ways.

"One thing I tried to make (the girls) understand was that no matter who you see come into school, teacher or student, they can be wearing up-to-date clothes or have all the money in the world, but you don't know what may be happening (in their lives)," she said. "As they've gotten older, they have realized that and they are in a position to minister to their friends, to say, 'I like you as a person and what you have doesn't matter, it's who you are.' I've been very pleased they got the message."

The pain in her voice as she told her story brought home a real and sobering truth – poverty and suffering are not just other people's problems. But her narrative, void of self-pity or anger, revealed a loving mom who wanted to make sure her girls grew up caring about those around them and giving back rather than on focusing on their own problems.

One way she has found to "give something back" is by donating items to Project GRACE that have been refurbished or repaired by her father. And her daughters have been a part of the local organization's movement within the community by being a part of Scarborough Middle School's service project, which recently collected blankets, towels, socks, toiletries, winter accessories and non-perishable foods to donate to Project GRACE for local shelters and food pantries.

Though a good portion of what is donated goes to families in Scarborough, some is given to residents of surrounding communities. The Cape Coalition, made up of students and adults from Cape Elizabeth, and students in the REACH program from Mahoney and Memorial middle schools in South Portland, decorated ornaments on a Giving Tree at Cape Elizabeth's Inn by the Sea. The ornaments went to people who donated hats and mittens in return, which will be distributed to shelters by Project GRACE.

It's another example of the organization's talent for stirring people to pass blessings on to others and to teach children the importance of giving.

"There are some of us who are living on the edge who might feel, 'this is it, this is my last day, I don't feel like I can do any more,'" the Scarborough mom said. "And then they get a letter or phone call saying, 'this is Project GRACE; we feel we can help you.' Daily I think about the Project GRACE people and the wonderful things they do. I wonder if they realize their impact."

She said her daughters have been deeply moved and changed by their experience and in turn have been encouraged to volunteer to help in the community.

"It's a trickle down thing. If you start with one thing, it makes people more aware in the community, (who think), 'maybe I need to say something, do something,'" she said. "If we are aware, I think fewer people will suffer."

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.