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Eight ME charities top nonprofit list

An organization that evaluates the financial health of more than 5,000 charities nationwide has named eight Maine charities among its top-ranked operations.

New Jersey-based Charity Navigator recently unveiled a more in-depth rating system that ranks charities based on ethical practices, accountability and transparency with donors, according to a press release. The Maine charities that received the highest, four-star rating are: Bowdoin College in Brunswick; Camp Sunshine in Casco; Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay; Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland; The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor; Pine Tree Society in Bath; Preble Street in Portland; and Sustainable Harvest International in Surry. A total of 1,266 charities received four stars.

The new metrics — which include whether a charity uses an objective process to set a CEO’s salary, whether it has an effective governance structure and whether it has a whistleblower policy — complement Charity Navigator’s 10-year-old rating system based on financial health. Charity Navigator’s free-of-charge ratings help donors make informed decisions about the charities they support, according to its website.

Bitter cold creates busy homeless shelters

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — A week of bitter cold has led to busy homeless shelters, as staff in shelters across Portland open overflow spaces and break records for occupancy and meals served.

Staff at both Preble Street and the Oxford Street Shelter said they will not be turning anyone away, but they do need help to keep up with demand.

Mark Swann, Executive Director at Preble Street, said the shelter needs canned food.

Swann said the shelter served a record number of meals one night this week: about 512. He said on the busiest nights, the shelter usually serves about 400.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Swann.

At the Oxford Street Shelter, there is record-breaking occupancy, with about 260 people sleeping there on one night this week.

Supervisors there said they can use hats, gloves, and other clothing, along with blankets.

Both locations said they can use monetary donations to help replenish depleting supplies — and both locations said they will not turn anyone away.

Shelters in other areas of the state are experiencing similar situations.

In Old Orchard Beach, the Salvation Army has opened as an emergency shelter through Sunday.

NEWS CENTER

Keep Preble Street miracle from disappearing

A cynic might read Dovid Muyderman’s story-turned-screenplay, in which two young Jewish brothers live in a homeless shelter by night and pull straight A’s at Portland High School by day, and scoff that it’s too far-fetched — stuff like that just doesn’t happen out there in the real world.

Except it did.

"This is eerie," said Muyderman, 31, as he and Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, stepped inside the Portland social service agency’s Lighthouse Shelter for homeless teenagers Thursday morning. "This is very familiar ground. It’s changed a little bit, but it’s got the same feel."

What kind of feel?

"It’s a place to sleep, for sure," Muyderman replied. "And a place to go to that’s safe and usually has food and resources and is really proximal to the school, which was good for us."

He’s talking about himself and his older brother, Josh. Their story, which Dovid Muyderman hopes soon will be on a screen near you, is proof positive that kids without a home need not be kids without hope.

"We call these things ‘Preble Street miracles,’" said Swann, who last week launched a campaign to move the aging shelter for teenagers to a bigger and better building at the nearby corner of Preble Street and Cumberland Avenue. "For these guys to be wanting their story to be public and get this film made — at the same time we’re trying to relocate and improve services (to homeless teenagers) — it’s just such a boost for us, it really is."

How these two brothers came to be homeless is, to put it mildly, complicated: Their parents, both orthodox Jews, divorced after having five children. Mom remained in the family home in central Maine, while Dad went first to Europe for a year and then rented an apartment on Portland’s India Street.

Josh and Dovid, the two oldest kids, lived with each parent at various times. But in a 12-minute documentary Dovid produced earlier this year for the Maine Jewish Film Festival, he offers a painfully simple explanation for why, at 14 and 15, respectively, he and Josh found themselves living on the streets of Portland.

"Some people just aren’t cut out to breed," he says in the short film, adding that his parents didn’t "know how to put themselves on the back burner, which is what you have to do" when there are kids involved.

One evening in 1994, concerned that the two boys clearly had nowhere to spend the night, a social worker at the Portland Boys & Girls Club directed Josh and Dovid to the Lighthouse Shelter for teenagers on nearby Elm Street. Operated back in those days by the Salvation Army, the three-story, 16-bed haven would become their home for almost two years.

Swann, a staffer at nearby Preble Street, occasionally moonlighted as an overnight supervisor at the teen shelter.

"I distinctly remember these two young brothers who stuck together, kept their heads down and went up early to do their homework long before the other kids went upstairs," Swann recalled.

And each morning, while the other kids scurried over to the Preble Street soup kitchen for breakfast, Josh and Dovid would grab their books, their completed homework and walk up the short hill and across Cumberland Avenue to Portland High School. Even as they consistently posted A’s up and down their transcripts, few among their teachers and fellow students ever knew they were homeless.

Why school? Why not just hang out at Preble Street, or the Portland Public Library, or one of the other daily haunts for kids who for whatever reason find themselves going nowhere fast?

"Because that was the only way out," Dovid replied, pointing up toward the high school. "The only way out of this situation was across the street."

It worked.

Josh, at age 16, graduated from Portland High in 1995 with a Brown Medal — awarded to the five boys and five girls with the highest academic achievement in their class. Soon thereafter, he packed his bags at the Lighthouse Shelter and headed for Columbia University, where he’d been awarded a full scholarship.

From there, Josh continued on to medical school at Cornell University. He now works as an emergency room doctor at a hospital in Hagerstown, Md., where he lives with his wife and one child.

Dovid went on to become a Horatio Alger National Scholar at Portland High, attended New York University and graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in media studies.

He now lives on Munjoy Hill with his wife and two daughters and works as an analyst for GovernanceMetrics International in Portland.

In short, the brothers Muyderman survived — and then some.

Earlier this year, starting with a memoir Josh wrote about their life on the streets, Dovid sat down with screenwriter Damion Rallis to produce a 92-page screenplay. He named it "Lighthouse."

The film, narrated a la "Forrest Gump," centers on brothers "Joseph" and "Jake" as they navigate their anything-but-typical passage from scared kids to overachieving young adults. If all goes according to plan, on-location shooting will start early next year at the shelter, Portland High School, the Preble Street Teen Center on Cumberland Avenue and elsewhere around downtown Portland.

"You couldn’t write the proximity of all these locations," said Dovid, who will direct the film. "There’s not another city in the country that has the homeless shelter, the high school, the library and the soup kitchen all in two blocks."

A hefty chunk of the film’s proceeds will go to Preble Street, which needs all the help it can get as it leverages a $1 million grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation into a $3.5 million fundraising campaign for the new shelter.

Preble Street’s plans call for 24 beds compared to the 16 at the current shelter, where Swann says demand these days has grown to the point where latecomers are now turned away for lack of space "two out of every three nights."

Which, from where Dovid now sits, is unacceptable.

"If you’ve never been homeless, it’s hard to imagine the feeling of not having a place to sleep," he said. "It’s a devastating feeling having no place to go."

Especially when you’re 14.

So, want to help get this movie made?

Go to the film’s website and check out "The Cause." And while you’re at it, stop by Preble Street‘s site and click on "You Can Help."

"The whole purpose of making this film is to try and see if we can increase tolerance of homeless people in general," Dovid said. "To see if there’s a way we can change opinions, especially of the teens."

The shelter, which Preble Street took over in 2004, sat pin-drop silent as he spoke — it opens at 8 each night and empties no later than 8 the next morning. But even in the stillness, Dovid could hear echoes of his and his brother’s past.

"If this place had not existed, we would have just been bouncing around," he said. "And who knows? … Who knows?"

That’s easy — at least in movie terms.

Without the Lighthouse, this "Preble Street miracle" fades to black.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

In the cruel fact of homelessness, kindness is welcome

During the last two weeks, we have used this space to highlight organizations that serve animals and children, respectively, as a way to show people how they can help the less fortunate during the holiday season. This week, the focus falls on homelessness, which becomes an even more urgent problem in the winter months.

The falling dominoes of the hurting economy – the lack of spending, the loss of jobs, the shortfalls in government revenue, the cuts in social services – have resulted in a precipitous rise in homelessness in Maine.

Homelessness is a problem that is most visible in Portland, but only because residents of nearby communities migrate to that city, where most of the services are based. According to Melanie McKean of Preble Street, which serves the homeless and hungry throughout most of Cumberland County, the group has seen a 30 percent rise in the number of people served compared to the last year or two. And she doesn’t expect it to get any better any time soon.

“At our women’s shelter, we anticipated serving 35 women, but now average 57,” McKean said. “At our breakfast soup kitchen last week we served 400 meals in one hour. … By March 2010 we will be serving over 500,000 meals a year and will need many more volunteers to help prepare and serve.”

It is easier on our conscience to dismiss the homeless as a population apart, to be kept under wraps and out of the way by organizations such as Preble Street. It is easier on the heart to decide that the homeless are suffering because of some personal failing or a few poor decisions. It is easier to put out of mind the man or woman hunkering down for a cold night on the street.

But the fact remains that people are homeless for a multitude of reasons: mental illness, substance abuse, lack of job opportunities and affordable housing, eroding social service support, domestic violence, and generational poverty, among others.

It seems likely that many people who will warm themselves tonight within the walls of an apartment or house may have been at a point in their lives a bad break or two away from being homeless. Without family support, without the means or knowledge to access social services, or with debilitating illness, mental or otherwise, it is a much shorter fall to the bottom than most people realize.

If we can agree that but for a little luck and grace we may find ourselves seeking help in a way once thought unimaginable, then we can agree that homelessness as a problem belongs to all of us. Money can help – money almost always helps – but volunteerism and community involvement are necessary, as well.

Preble Street has numerous opportunities, from serving meals and gathering donations to helping in the office. While they serve more than just the homeless, food pantries in communities throughout Cumberland County can always use volunteers to distribute food in order to help families keep costs down, a key to preventing homelessness in the first place.

As McKean says, “It takes all of us – businesses, faith communities, schools, civic organizations, and individuals – pitching in, volunteering, reaching out, speaking up.”