Community H.E.L.P. begins

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

IT TAKES A VILLAGE — Christine Kleeman, left and Patti Wininger are organizing a program to provide free household items to Bridgton residents in need and are seeking donations and a downtown space in which to store and distribute the items. Call Christine at 647-9983, or Patti at 583-9192. (Geraghty Photo)

Two friends have teamed up to help Bridgton folks who’ve fallen on hard times. They have ambitious plans, and the time and energy to help — thus their name, Community H.E.L.P. (Helping Enrich Lives Program).

But before Christine Kleeman and Patti Wininger can help others, they need a little help themselves — a small favor, but one that could mean so much to so many good people in need.

The Bridgton women are looking for a space downtown to store donated clothes, furniture and other household essentials. They’re just getting started, and they can’t pay rent, so it could be a temporary arrangement. Down the road, there might be grants or gifts backing up their efforts. But right now, they’re banking on the good will they know runs deep through their hometown.

“Bridgton is a great town. It stands for greatness,” said Kleeman. “If someone has a garage, or any other kind of space, we could use it. I’ll talk to anyone who is willing to listen.”

So will Wininger, who’s already been in touch with many of the town’s charitable organizations to get ideas and feedback. “We already have some donations. We just have to find that one person, ” she said.

Wininger met Kleeman when she used to work for Renys, and they became friends. Wininger got involved with Head Start in Bridgton when she began raising her three-year-old grandson, and heard first-hand how hard parents there struggled to meet basic needs. Head Start provides free clothing and toys for the children, but space is limited. And what about other, more general yet essential household needs, like small kitchen appliances, pots, pans, towels, bedding, and gently used furniture?

Wininger wanted to help, and turned to Kleeman, a former substance abuse counselor and college graduate. Kleeman says she’s “100% invested” in seeing Community H.E.L.P. get up and running, and has written a mission statement. Both of them sought the advice of Carmen Lone, executive director of the Bridgton Community Center, who is supportive of their effort and will serve as a sounding board.

“There’s definitely a need for something like that here,” Lone said. “People come to me knowing what I can help them with (The Center manages a fuel assistance program and provides free meals, classes and events) and then people will say, ‘Where can I get a twin bed?’ Or someone else says ‘I’m getting a new refrigerator — you know anyone who needs my old one?’ Many of the churches and non-profits have programs, but there’s at least a need for better coordination, so that we each know who to go to for what,” she said.

Space is at a premium for many charitable programs, such as the Clothes Closet at the First Congregational Church. Wininger and Kleeman don’t want “to step on anyone’s toes” by duplicating services, they said. The Bridgton Hospital Guild Thrift Shop on Main Street offers used clothing at low prices to benefit Bridgton Hospital, for example, Wininger said. She talked to volunteers there and learned that they, too, suffer from a lack of space, and sometimes have the need to get rid of clothes that don’t sell.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes; and if you’ve lost everything in a fire or other disaster — or you’ve had one bad break too many, and lost it all — they want Community H.E.L.P. to be there.

“Everyone’s just one paycheck from falling off the Earth,” said Kleeman, referring to the average working-class family. Over a third of Bridgton’s year-round residents do not make a living wage. In Cumberland County, that’s $9.87 an hour for one person.

“It’s all about helping people in their own backyards, whether they need a pair of sneakers or a $10 gift card,” said Kleeman. “And, I firmly believe there is a need.”

Both women welcome calls from anyone who wants to donate money or items, offer storage space or just bounce around ideas. Kleeman may be reached at 647-9983, and Wininger’s phone number is 583-9192.  Or, e-mail bridgtoncommunityhelp@gmail.com

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