By A.M. Sheehan
NORWAY — In a twist of irony, someone stole all the meals for the Progress Center’s Feel Better Food program March 10. Food that, had they asked, would have been given to them.
It is Thursday evening – time for the Progress Center’s weekly community meal which is open to anyone needing a meal. Also happening is the weekly food distribution of milk, fruits, vegetables and bread.
The next morning, volunteers will arrive to collect the meals the volunteer staff have made for the Feel Better clients.
The Feel Better program makes four days worth of meals twice a week and delivers them to recovering medical patients and their families. Currently, 14 patients and their families depend on the meals for sustenance.
Program Director Liz Blaquiere and a few volunteers are cleaning up after serving the community meal and distributing food.
A man bangs on the a seldom used side door. He is very upset, tells Miranda Ward, marketing and development director for the Progress Center.
Let in by a volunteer, he becomes erratic, she says, waving his arms, demanding money and insisting he get change for a $10 bill.
“They opened the door to see if he needed help,” she explains.
Liz and the few volunteers left on site assist the man as best they can, usher him out and lock up. Board member Ron Raymond insists no one stay any later.
“He had an intuition,” says Ward.
So everyone went home.
The next morning, Blaquiere arrives to get the meals out of the cooler, and they are gone.
Confused, she notices blobs of mashed potato on the floor – a trail of sorts – that leads out of the building, down the ramp and across the parking lot.
Other volunteers arrive and one mentions that a man, who had been with the man behaving erratically the night before, had eaten at the community meal and then gone into the community room to get free food and had been opening cooler doors.
“He had opened the cooler where the Feel Better food was stored,” says Ward. “A volunteer and stopped him and explained that the food was not part of the distribution.”
Suddenly, what had appeared to be random acts began to fit together and make sense.
“We think they were ‘tag teamed’ by the two men,” says Ward. “One created a disturbance and got everyone’s attention on him while the other slipped in and hid.”
After everyone had left, they speculate, the “inside” man removed the food and spirited it away, leaving a trail of potato.
They called the police.
Norway Police Officer Robert Federico responded and took a report. Unfortunately, he says, with so little to go on other than “an idea they [the two men] live in Buckfield,” police can’t do much else.
They are, he says, “keeping an eye on the center.”
The center has made changes, too. The coolers are now kept locked, the locks on all the doors have been changed, the side door will not be opened except in an emergency and no one will be allowed to be alone in the building.
The incident cost the Progress Center about $350 for lost food, as well as the containers the food is delivered in and the expense to change door locks and lock the coolers.
Further, there was no time to remake the meals. So Blaquiere and volunteers had to purchase more food and the families got soup and sandwiches for their meals that week. They were delivered on time.
“We don’t have excess food,” says Ward, “we give it all away!” She notes that buying food is very expensive.
“If people are in dire straights,” says Ward, “there is food available.”
The center has passed the word around to other food pantries and meal programs. One church, she says, said the “erratic” man sounded very familiar.
Anyone with any information is asked to call the Norway Police Department at 743-5303.
“We are still feeding people,” Ward stresses. “We are trying to make up for the lost food and the money spent that wasn’t planned for. … We are on a tight budget.”
Anyone wishing to donate to the center can call 743-8049, ext. 266.