Inspired by those in need
Occupation: Director of the Maine Hunger Initiative and Advocacy at Preble Street in Portland
A friend and an advocate: The homeless, the hungry, the poor and the hurting need both.
Donna Yellen of Portland is one of many such volunteers who every day not only helps serve food and provide shelter to those who need it, but also works in the social service and social justice system to improve social conditions and empower those who are treated like outcasts in our society.
“In this resourceful country that we have, allowing people to experience hunger and homelessness is completely unacceptable. I’m a firm believer we don’t have to have the kind of poverty we have in our country.” Yellen said. “That empowers me in my work and hopefully my work empowers them.”
Yellen was recognized by the Maine Council of Churches, of which she also serves as a board member, last fall for her 16 years of social work and advocacy with Preble Street in Portland. Preble Street is a social service agency whose mission is to provide services to empower people experiencing homelessness, hunger and poverty and to advocate for solutions to these problems.
“It’s her job but it’s also her passion,” said Martha Stein, development director for the Maine Council Churches, which aims “to inspire congregations and persons of faith to unite in good works that build a culture of justice, compassion and peace.”
According to Stein, Yellen demonstrates a compassion for others in and through her work, which, most notably, includes registering homeless people to vote, organizing bi-annual homeless vigils and, recently, the gathering of support for the creation of a home for homeless women in Portland. Her work with the Maine Hunger Initiative seeks to determine the root causes and find potential solutions to address hunger in our state.
She was influenced to pursue social work at the age of 17 when her mother gave her a copy of Thomas Merton’s “The Sign of Jonas,” which emphasized “the importance of removing oneself from the world before being able to make changes to it,” Yellon said.
As a young woman, she left a job in computer science and technology with corporate IBM and moved to the Appalachian Mountain region of Kentucky, about which trappist monk Merton wrote.
“I knew that’s where she knew poverty in the United States was really severe,” she said, adding that once she began working with the people there, she never looked back.
Every day more than 900 meals are served to homeless and low-income adults, children, and families at eight soup kitchens operated by Preble Street in Portland, according to the organization’s website.
And every day, Yellen said, it is those individuals who inspire her.
“The people that come there are amazing and remarkable. They are the most funny, sweet and kind human beings,” Yellen said. “Working with people who experience poverty is one of the most incredible experiences, seeing the way they live their lives and the beauty the bring to it.”