Unsung Heroes: The Sawyers of Cumberland, Preble Street Sunday stalwarts

CUMBERLAND – In January 2012, the four members of the Sawyer family made a collective New Year’s resolution that was not of the exercise more/eat better/lose weight variety.

They decided to do something together on a regular basis as a family, to help others. So they contacted Preble Street in Portland and were soon put to work.

Preble Street’s mission is to provide accessible, barrier-free services that empower people experiencing homelessness, housing problems, hunger, and poverty, and to advocate for solutions. Food programs represent a critical part of Preble Street’s services, and that’s where the Sawyer family decided to provide support.

On the first Sunday of every month, the four Sawyers – parents Robin and Kevin, and their daughters Paige and Kaley – spend three hours at Preble Street assisting in all aspects of the free lunch program: preparation, serving and cleaning up.

“We mainly work behind the scenes with preparation and cleaning up,” Robin said, “but we’ve done a little bit of everything.”

That “little bit” includes tasks like making 300 servings of banana bread – a project initiated by Robin, when she noticed a huge number of overripe bananas – or bread pudding.

“I only wanted to do dishes at the beginning,” Kevin added, “but now I’ve gotten into cooking. I even made over 200 grilled cheese sandwiches one Sunday.”

The Sawyers have managed to maintain this unusual family tradition for over a year and a half, a good feat given their busy lives.

“It feels good to help out,” Paige, a social work major at the University of Southern Maine, said. “And it’s one of the only times during the month we spend time together as a family.”

Kaley said she believes she gets more than she gives by volunteering at Preble.

“The people are so grateful to see you and to be greeted with a smile. It’s good to be able to help people who are in a tough position, even though they’re trying hard to get by,” she said.

When asked if the experience has disrupted her school life, Kaley said, “It’s only once a month; anyone can find the time to do that.”

Robin added that she loves the feeling of community at Preble Street, especially the contact with the other volunteers.

Kaley is attending Ohio State University now, but the rest of the family plans to maintain the first-Sunday-of-the-month tradition; Kaley will join them when she’s home on breaks.

“We’re very committed to Preble Street,” Kevin said. “It’s become a Sunday afternoon thing for the family.”