Q&A: Community H.E.L.P. looks to make a difference
By Zoe Silvia
Community H.E.L.P. is a tiny nonprofit shop on Nulty Street in downtown Bridgton. Run by the director and founder, Patty Wininger, and several other volunteers, Community H.E.L.P. offers deals to low income families or individuals.
Wininger is retired, as are many of the other volunteers such as Karyl Langill, whom I also had the chance to talk to recently in the following Q/A profile. Langill is the president of Community H.E.L.P. and spends three days a week volunteering mainly in the kids’ section.
BN. What is the purpose of Community H.E.L.P.?
W: The purpose of Community H.E.L.P. is to help low income families with their clothing needs, so that’s what we’re here for. The H.E.L.P. stands for Helping Enrich Lives Program.
Being a mother of four and going through hard times myself, I always wanted to be able to give back anything that I could. This all started at the Head Start program in Bridgton, where I just asked people to bring in clothes that they weren’t using anymore and do a clothing swap. At the end of that, I just needed a place to store everything.
I haven’t counted in a while, but the last count I did, we had 400 families who had signed up for our bag program. When they sign up with a proof of income, they get a free bag of clothing and then in order to help us pay our rent, they can come back and get a regular shopping bag for $3 and get as many as they want, but many people don’t take advantage of it.
A lot of people feel like this is the place to come for a hug, we like to give hugs, or a place to come when they’re sad or need help. It’s my happy place. It makes me happy to be here.
L: She [Patty] created it about five years ago for low income people to help them get clothing and household needs. She helps homeless people and fire victims…The mission says it all.
The mission that Langill is referring to is a mission statement that reads in full, “Community H.E.L.P.’s mission is to assist economically struggling members of our community by providing access to inexpensive, gently-used clothing, household items and personal goods. Community H.E.L.P.’s goal is to provide resources to all residents of Bridgton and the surrounding area, and everyone is invited to visit the Community H.E.L.P. store and shop at our regular low prices.”
BN. What do you offer that other stores or thrift shops can’t?
L: A fun atmosphere and an area similar to Bridgton Books. You can come into the store, and you don’t have to buy anything, but you can come in here and sit and just read a book if you want to. We used to have a woman who would come in and sit on the floor, and just read for hours. We’re a little more unique than other thrift stores because of the atmosphere. Patty is a very huggy person. She likes to make everyone feel welcome and I didn’t feel that going to other thrift stores. I don’t have that feeling of closeness and joy and happiness, but I feel that whenever I walk in here.
W: Well, we offer the clothing program. We definitely could be the Goodwill of Bridgton if we had the space. Everybody has problems making ends meet, so if somebody can get clothing at a good price, then we feel like we’ve helped families. Some people don’t want to ask for help, but we’re here to help. We’ve helped homeless people with sleeping bags and towels. I know for a fact that the people in Bridgton don’t realize how many homeless people there are here, and that’s very sad to me. There are people sleeping in their cars or dugouts or dumpsters, and in some way we have helped them with clothing.
BN. What words would you use to describe Community H.E.L.P.?
L: Personally, I think it’s helpful, affordable, happy, bright, accepting — many words.
W: Happy, peaceful, nobody is telling you what you have to do here. Sometimes, it’s crazy, fun, interesting. We don’t judge you. We don’t judge anyone here. According to my guidelines, 97% of Bridgton is low income, so I understand what people are going through and we’re here to help. No one is judging anyone.
BN. What kind of deals do you offer?
W: Right now, we are running a sale where instead of buy one, get one free, it’s buy one, get two free. We’re really trying to get rid of things, since we have so many donations. We almost always have a sale going. There’s never a dull moment here.
L: Our biggest deal is buy one, get two free, which is going until Dec. 31 for the holidays. Patty always has a deal. It helps move all our inventory around.
BN. Where do you get your funding?
L: We don’t get funding. We don’t get any federal, town or state funding. Everything is from the donations we get from people. We sell them not to make a profit, but to pay the rent and pay the bills. We pay for the phone and the lights and the building. We have to sell whatever items we have to make a certain amount, just so we can stay here.
It would be wonderful if the Town of Bridgton would give us our own place so we don’t have to pay anything, so then we could be profitable. But we’re not. We’re only paying the rent and paying the bills.
W: We get no funding from the town. No funding from anyone. We’re working on trying to get grants. One of our biggest problems, besides not having enough space, is that nobody knows where we are. The town won’t put a sign out. We need a sign and we’ve been working with the town for five years to get a sign at the end of the road. But in the meantime, we’re here, we’re doing what we can, and we’re trying to help people with their needs. We just try to do our best.
BN. Who does Community H.E.L.P. cater to?
L: All. All people. All people are welcome here, whether you’re low income or a tourist, or just looking for a new outfit. Our main goal was low-income people. We have a program where when you first come in, under the Maine guidelines, ($34,000/year for one person, $48,000/year for a family of four) if people fall under it, they get this giant red basket, and everything in there is free. Then each time they come in, they can fill a grocery bag for $3.
BN. Do you have a specific story about making an impact in somebody’s life?
L: I don’t but I’m sure Patty does! Patty has millions.
W: I have one woman who came to me a couple years ago that was homeless and living in her car. She now has a place to live. Now, she comes back and she’s about 70 years old. She says, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without your help.’ She’s always offering to take me to lunch and whatnot.
There was another woman, who we stumbled upon and she needed special housing for her brother. Karyl helped her find housing for him in Bridgton, and she is so grateful to have him here.
We’ve had many different stories of people coming back to us. There are very many people that are so grateful that we are here to help them. It’s been amazing, doing this. I hope somebody — one of these people — finds a way to give back to the community and pass the happiness along. We’re just doing what we’ve gotta do, and making people smile.
Wininger ended the interview with a huge hug.
Community H.E.L.P. is open Monday through Saturday this winter from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Tuesdays. They’re always looking for volunteers and donations, so stop by for a great deal, friendly faces, and a hug.
Zoe Silvia of Bridgton is a student at Baxter Academy of Science and Technology in Portland. Flex Fridays enables the charter school’s students to take part in internships to explore possible career paths and engage in real world experiences.