Making a difference, one meal at a time: Community Café serves displaced families

By Peter Jasinski
Leominster Champion

Jackie Mestre, 10, of Lowell serves cupcakes at the Jan. 20 Community Cafe birthday celebration.  David Dore photo

Jackie Mestre, 10, of Lowell serves cupcakes at the Jan. 20 Community Cafe birthday celebration.
David Dore photo

The exact total number of displaced families living in Leominster changes depending on who you ask.

It’s true that the number fluctuates as the families that succeed in their struggle are replaced by the next ones to arrive. What’s known for sure is that each of these people needs to have something to eat.

The Community Café is one of the more recent creations that helps address this problem.

Staffed by more than 80 volunteers, the Community Café is made possible by the combined efforts of the Leominster school system, the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

“A little over a year ago we heard about these families at the Days Inn. We discussed it and said, ‘There’s got to be something we can do to help these families,’” said the Rev. James Craig, rector of St. Mark’s. “It’s really been a remarkable journey we’ve been on.”

Every Tuesday night, families are bused in from their hotels to the Boys and Girls Club for a meal that lasts for about an hour. The numbers of those attending varies based on the number of occupants in each hotel, with a low week bringing in around 70 people and a busy night having more than 120. According to Craig, the majority of the crowd is made up of children, and on the busiest night more than 150 arrived.

The food being used is raised by the parishioners of St. Mark’s, as well as donations and grants. On some nights, local businesses have volunteered for the café and supplied the food for that evening. Local restaurants such as Il Camino and Il Forno in Fitchburg have donated meals for entire nights, and Panera Bread has often served as a reliable source to get bread.

“It is amazing, the support we’ve gotten from just people talking about what we’re doing. We never expected this. I expected community support, but never at this level,” said Community Café Chairperson Brenda Cole-Milner.
The work of the café isn’t limited to just food. Donations have included clothing, toiletries, and all other kinds of things everyone needs just to get through the day. One of Craig’s favorite memories from his work so far was finding a Christmas tree for one girl who came to the café and dropping it off for her at her hotel.

At this year’s annual inauguration program, the volunteers of the café were recognized with a community service award by Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella.

“It’s a big issue, it’s a complex problem, and I just don’t see the improvement with it,” said Terry Downing, the senior warden for St. Mark’s. “We’ve been seeing some success with people transitioning into their own apartments outside of the Days Inn, but once they’re out it’s still a major struggle for them.”

There are a wide array of reasons for the current situation and why all of a sudden Leominster has seen such an increase in homeless and displaced residents. Much of it can be traced back to the state’s lack of low-income housing. When the number of individuals in need exceeds the space available in low-income housing, the people left over are brought to wherever there is room. Ideally there are supposed to be living close to where they originally come from, but more often people from cities like Boston, Springfield, Methuen and Lowell are being moved into whatever hotel rooms in Leominster that are empty.

Though volunteers of the café recognize that the work they are doing is helpful, they realize it won’t fix the problem. Still, they work undaunted to relieve the stress on those already struggling.

“If somebody gets a job, they’re so excited to tell us about it so we can celebrate. And when someone finally finds and apartment or someplace to live we can celebrate with them on that too,” Craig said. “I think that brings hope to a lot of people.”