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Preparing the communities of Southern Maine, now and into the future

How Preble Street, a Portland food pantry and shelter, anticipated the need for a major emergency response

As early reports of the coronavirus signaled the potential for serious concern, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann gathered his emergency preparedness team. Top of mind for the nonprofit was how to keep a staff of 240, plus scores of volunteers, safe while they operated three soup kitchens, a food pantry, a health clinic and two homeless shelters with a combined 64 beds. “Watching what was happening in February 2020 was our moment of truth,” Swann recalls. “We host 325 people for dinner in small dining room—we need to keep them safe.”

The team decided to focus on new ways they could deliver support at a greater scale and for an indefinite amount of time. They started by preparing and packaging 1,200 meals a day that could be distributed to food banks and soup kitchens. That meant going from weekly to daily food distributions.

As the need for services grew, Preble Street worked with the state to create a temporary 50-bed shelter in a University of Southern Maine gym—which they were able to complete in just 10 days. The nonprofit also set up a quarantine shelter in a local hotel for people experiencing homelessness who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The new responsibilities stretched their resources, and Preble Street hired 50 new full- and part-time employees to help manage increased demand. “When you’re in a crisis, you hope that the best in people will emerge, and I’m really proud of the way everyone here has stepped forward,” says Swann. “Our volunteers and staff never faltered in their responsibility to a lot of vulnerable people.”

When you’re in a crisis, you hope that the best in people will emerge. Our volunteers and staff never faltered in their responsibility to a lot of vulnerable people.
Mark Swann  |  Preble Street Executive Director

Expenses, of course, rose sharply, too. Bonus pay for employees working directly with clients added $150,000 a month to the budget, and expanded food programs cost an extra $25,000 a month. Bank of America came forward with a $40,000 grant, part of a $100 million commitment to communities in need, and a host of Maine businesses and individual donors also came through with support.

Looking ahead, Swann wants to build on some of the unexpected benefits of social distancing. At the university shelter, beds are spread out and dividers provide a sense of personal space, a welcome change for clients used to living in close quarters. “To walk into what had been a big empty basketball court and feel the vibe of quiet and calm and healing, it was a profound moment,” he recalls.

As nonprofits adjust to addressing increased needs in their local communities, Bank of America is committed to supporting them. Learn more about the bank’s $100 million philanthropic commitment to more than 1,300 nonprofits on the front lines, which is in addition to our annual $250 million in philanthropic giving, as well as our $250 million capital commitment to assist local businesses.