Emma Johnson ’14, a Bowdoin College ‘Community Matters in Maine’ Fellow Helps the Hungry

This summer, Emma Johnson ’14 received a Community Matters in Maine Summer Fellowship from Bowdoin to work for Preble Street, a Portland-based organization fighting hunger and homelessness. Executive Director Mark Swann, class of 1984, helped found Preble Street in the early 1990s, and this year was nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor for his work. In 2001, Swann also received Bowdoin’s Common Good Award, which honors alumni who have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the common good with disregard for personal gains.

Johnson, an anthropology major and gender and women’s studies minor, said that just three weeks into her job she has become even more certain she will dedicate her career to working in the nonprofit sector and helping people.

Bowdoin Daily Sun: What initially sparked your interest in this internship, this fellowship?

Emma Johnson: I knew I wanted to do some sort of internship, or job, or volunteering with a nonprofit, because that’s what I want to do eventually for my career. So I was researching on the McKeen Center website and found the Community Matters in Maine program. I read descriptions of all the different groups McKeen was working with, and I went to all their websites, and I thought that Preble Street would be the one I had the most experience with and knowledge about. Last summer, I worked for the United Way [near] my hometown [in Southhampton, Mass.], and I did a lot of work with hunger and especially childhood hunger and nutrition – so not quite what Preble Street is doing, but I was familiar with the low-income, poverty aspect.

BDS: Why do you think a nonprofit career is in your future?

EJ: I enjoy it. I’ve always liked volunteering, doing community service. I strongly believe that your career should be something that is benefiting society as a whole, and for me that has always been a clear path to nonprofit work or some sort of social work. And so far, Preble Street has been amazing in terms of affirming my desire to continue with this.

BDS: Why has it been so powerful in affirming your commitment?

EJ: This might sound cliché, but when you’re there at Preble Street, it’s really inspirational every day to be around the people you’re helping; you can see the direct impacts of the work you’re doing. Working with the United Way last summer, I knew I was doing good things, and you could see the data, but working at Preble Street you are in the middle of it.

And Preble Street itself is a really amazing organization because of the variety of things it does. And the tactics it uses are, I think, pretty unique. I don’t know that much about similar organizations, but I do know that Preble Street is a place homeless people can go when they can’t go elsewhere. The main philosophy is low barrier, so if you need help there, they’ll give you help no matter what.

BDS: What do you do on a daily basis?

EJ: It changes every day. I’m working for the Maine Hunger Initiative mostly, which is an organization within Preble Street that deals with hunger throughout Maine.

The two projects I’ve been working on the most have been the summer-meals program, where they’re bringing free, federally funded meals to low-income areas. The government will reimburse sponsors who bring free meals to areas where there [are many] students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the school year, so that they have an option in the summer when they can’t get food. What Maine Hunger is doing is finding the sites – a school, community center, park, or even street corner – where [the food can be distributed], finding volunteers to facilitate it, finding organizations that are willing to make the food.

I’ve also been working a lot with what we call the Farm-to-Pantry program where we have a grant to buy fresh produce from local farms and bring it to different food pantries in Cumberland County.

Also, I’ve been volunteering in a lot for the different Preble Street organizations: working at the Teen Center, making meals there, or volunteering in the soup kitchen or in the food pantry.

BDS: What has been the most satisfying part of the internship?

EJ: It might just be working in the kitchen, talking to people, the clients. Because I’m with the Maine Hunger Initiative, I don’t get as much interaction with the clients. There are case workers much more focused on that. But Preble Street strives to get everyone – admin, Maine Hunger Initiative, other groups that are less focused on the clients themselves – into the [soup kitchen or food pantry at the] Resource Center and Teen Center as much as possible, so you can remember what you’re working for. And it’s really powerful to be there and see how it runs.

BDS: What’s been the most challenging part of the job?

EJ: It’s probably the other side of the same coin: dealing with clients. Though it’s satisfying to talk to them and hear their stories, some of it is really hard. Even just something as small as when you’re serving dinner or serving lunch in the kitchen, and you say you can only have one piece of chicken, you know a lot of the times this is probably this person’s only meal today.

I like working in the food pantry. But it’s extremely difficult because there are so few resources. Everyone at Preble Street says it’s the most empty it’s ever been. Even though they do pick-ups every Thursday at several different grocery stores and they have tons of donations, [the amount of food] is so little and it’s trying to feed so many people. So saying you can’t have a second bunch of lettuce is really hard.

BDS: How do you see the internship fitting into your long-term goals?

EJ: I don’t know where I’ll end up but this internship and working at Preble Street has given me an idea of all the different ways you can do nonprofit work. Just within the organization, you have the social work, the case workers; you have the more action/volunteer-type work, which would be the food pantry and soup kitchen and working in the Resource Center; and you also have advocacy, which is probably where I would go if I have a choice. It is more removed from the clients, but in my opinion you can do a lot more with it.

BDS: How will you get there?

EJ: Most people in the organization have social work degrees of some sort. After I graduate, I’ll do a couple years of Peace Corps or something along those lines, international traveling or volunteering of some sort, and then I’ll probably go to grad school. There are some good nonprofit management degrees.

BDS: How have you changed because of this experience?

EJ: I already think I’ve gained some perspective, certainly, about homelessness and hunger in Maine, and to a smaller extent in the country. There’s a lot I didn’t know about it that I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks. I knew hunger was a serious problem and I knew it affected a lot more people than is generally thought, but I didn’t realize how many ways there are to combat it. For example, I’m pretty sure I’m eligible for food supplement benefits. So many people are eligible who don’t take advantage of it. Even though hunger is getting harder and harder to deal with because of the shrinking pool of resources, and less and less support is going to nonprofits and places trying to combat it, there’s a lot of options.

[Another thing] that’s changed my perspective is I’ve realized there’s a lot of wrong ways to do social work. And I might be biased, or probably quite biased, but is seems to me that Preble Street is doing it the right way. There’s a lot of ways to mess it up. For example, forcing people to get clean before they enter housing – it’s just too hard for some people. Preble Street’s philosophy in regards to housing is "housing first," which assumes if you have a stable place to live, to at least sleep inside that belongs to you, then you can start to get clean, then you can get a job, then you can reconnect to your family.