If you walk past the Hannaford’s parking lot, you’ll find a small, white building with a sign that reads, “Welcome is our mission.” Inside, the main room is packed with people chatting, reading and drinking coffee.
The Gathering Place (GP) is a local non profit that provides daytime shelter and community to Brunswick’s low-income and homeless residents. The shelter opened in 2010 and now serves over 100 people per day, offering supplies, food and life-skills classes. Oftentimes, guests at GP spend afternoons simply enjoying each other’s company over warm drinks.
As a small nonprofit, GP relies heavily on volunteers, including a handful of Bowdoin students.
“[Bowdoin students] bring to us energy and enthusiasm and this idealism that says, ‘I can make a difference,’” said Sally Hennessey, GP’s Volunteer Program Coordinator.
But Bowdoin students can gain a lot from volunteering as well, said Olivia Giles ’20, who began volunteering at GP during her first year at Bowdoin and now serves on its Board of Directors.
“When I tell people, they’re like, ‘You’re on the board of a nonprofit?’ and I say, ‘Yeah!’ I don’t contribute as much as everyone else but it’s such a great learning experience. I’ve seen how a nonprofit actually comes to be,” said Giles.
Hennessey and Giles have found numerous benefits to volunteering at GP: engagement with a diverse population, opportunities to make intergenerational connections and the freedom to explore their own interests.
“It’s an unique opportunity for the Gathering Place to work on building partnerships with the leaders of tomorrow and to make [students] aware of the length and breadth of the problems of homelessness and poverty, because those are not unique to Brunswick,” said Hennessey.
Both Hennessey and Giles agreed that the most important part of their work has been learning from and connecting with the guests that visit GP. Giles says that the people she has met through her work have surprised her, enlightened her and dramatically changed her outlook on not only poverty but “human nature and human character” as a whole.
“I think a lot of Bowdoin students, when they go to the food pantry or to the Gathering Place, they pity the people that they’re working with and that should not be the case,” Giles said. “At the Gathering Place, a third of individuals are homeless, but a lot of them are low income or elderly and just want to have someone to talk to, and the people you meet, even if they are homeless, are really outstanding individuals with really amazing backstories and careers.”
Giles wishes that the Brunswick community—Bowdoin students included—would make more of an effort to engage with this part of the town.
“[The guests at GP] taught me so many things about being accepting of people,” she said. “I’m kind of shy sometimes, and they brought me right into all their conversations. It really shows you something about human nature. They’re [some of] the best people that this community has.”
Hennessey said the relationship goes both ways, and that guests appreciate the chance to speak with student volunteers. Yet, as is the case in many college towns, Giles sees a degree of inherent tension between the privilege of Bowdoin students and the poverty visible at GP.
“Going in as a Bowdoin student, you kind of need to put that identity aside. [Guests at GP] do like Bowdoin and they like the community, but I think it’s important that when you’re speaking with guests that you’re not the only one speaking, that you’re really listening and that you’re trying to find points of connection with them,” said Giles.
Staff at GP hope to continue strengthening connections with the College as the organization grows—Hennessey said that they are “outgrowing this building.” More recently, there are two new Bowdoin volunteers at GP, and Giles is preparing to run a drive to collect tampons for the organization from April 29 to May 2.
“We’d love to have more Bowdoin students,” said Hennessy. “It’s great work [that] speaks to my heart. And I think that the Bowdoin students who come in find it an enriching experience, probably unforgettable in many ways.”