South Portland’s ‘The Hub’: Old trailer outside, community center inside

SOUTH PORTLAND — The floor tilts slightly to one side, and folding banquet tables serve as office desks.

There’s a coffee pot, informational pamphlets, photos of children, artwork, crafts and food. A small room at the front of the structure contains a book swap and a children’s clothing exchange.

The old trailer that houses the Neighborhood Resource Hub on Westbrook Street has seen better days. But it is a warm, welcoming place, known by neighbors as simply “The Hub” and to neighborhood children as “Merrie’s House.”

Merrie Allen, community builder with Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, an Opportunity Alliance program, runs The Hub at 586 Westbrook St., between Redbank and Brick Hill.

Allen calls it a safe space, where people are free from judgment. The organization strives to break down barriers and unite members of the community.

“People are thriving. There might be things that are in the way, so they don’t look like they are thriving, but they have the love and capacity to give back,” Allen said.

The Hub is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, as well as additional hours some days, occasional weekends, and by appointment.

Allen helps people with resumes and job searches. She points them to the right place if they have an immigration problem, or she looks up information, using Google Translate if needed. Sometimes visitors are connected to neighbors who may have been through a similar issue.

Allen said The Hub is constantly evolving to meet residents’ needs. The neighborhood is diverse, with residents from more than a dozen countries.

The center holds a neighborhood connection night the third Wednesday of every month at the Redbank Community Center, where neighbors enjoy dinner together and everyone gets two minutes to speak about whatever they want. It’s a time to build relationships and find out what is happening in the community.

Allen said food is a major issue for people who come to The Hub. Many people feel like they can sacrifice food and health care to pay for housing. In response, the Hub is stocked with fresh produce from the South Portland Food Cupboard every Tuesday starting at 1 p.m. On Thursdays at 1 p.m. the Food Cupboard delivers fresh bread.

On a recent visit some of the produce included zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, edamame and fresh herbs, along with a variety of fruit. Baked goods were also available. The food is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.

On the fourth Wednesday of the month, Wayside Mobile Food Pantry pays a visit, the only food resource residents are required to register for in advance.

The Hub is a collective of the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, a department of the Opportunity Alliance, and community partners. Those partners include the city of South Portland, Avesta Housing, Eastpoint Christian Church, Wex, Southern Maine Community College, The Greater Portland Community Health and the South Portland West End Neighborhood Association.

The Hub was started by Opportunity Alliance, the city, and the Department of Human Services. The trailer operated without running water and a volunteer staff before a part-time community builder was hired. Allen was hired full time in 2012.

It is funded by a Community Development Block Grant and has been so successful – attracting about 11,000 visitors a month, according to Chris Gorman, director of community building at Opportunity Alliance – that the concept has expanded to Skillin Elementary and Kaler Elementary schools, both in South Portland; the Parkside and Riverton neighborhoods in Portland; the Brown Street neighborhood in Westbrook, and a Biddeford neighborhood.

There are two new hubs being developed in Sanford and Bridgton.

“It may not be elaborate, but it sure is in the right place,”  Gorman said. “No one is ever turned away. Everyone is welcome to be heard and to have someone else try to help them.”

Allen said many people who benefit from The Hub end up volunteering, and people routinely donate items. Recently someone left a working vacuum cleaner at the front door, for which Allen quickly found a home.

“People want a safe, validating way to take care of each other,” Allen said. “We want people to leave here with a sense of self and possibility.”

Jim Brackley has lived in Redbank for about 10 years and has been coming to the hub for about four. Brackley said he volunteered when he was in better health, but still finds ways to help. While picking up vegetables, Brackley offered to share his knowledge of computers with his neighbors.

“It’s a great place to meet your neighbors, and they have great people who work there,” Brackley said. “They help out a lot.”

Melanie Sochan

The Forecaster