women recovery home in Camden Maine

Continuing a legacy of serving women in need at 63 Washington Street (Camden, Maine)

Helping women in recovery from substance use disorder requires new and creative solutions, but when Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition (MCRC) Executive Director Ira Mandel talks about plans to establish a women’s recovery residence in Camden, he looks to the past as much as to the future.

“Camden’s history of giving and helping convinces me that together we can establish such a place,” Mandel said. “Turns out I’ve been driving right past it for years without realizing it.”

When he learned that 63 Washington Street was for sale, Mandel quickly recognized it as an opportunity to turn a residence with deep history in serving women into a vital resource in responding to the very different problems that women face in the 21st century. Wanting to learn more about the building’s history, he and I, also a member of the MCRC board, turned to the collections of the Camden Public Library and to Camden’s official historian and unofficial matriarch, Barbara Dyer.

Looking at historic photographs of Camden, one gets a sense of what has changed and what has remained the same. Barbara Dyer remembers the Camden glimpsed in archival photographs. Over the decades, some buildings go, while those that remain are modified and repurposed to meet contemporary needs. Dyer knows that the same applies to vital community institutions, and that people’s needs change with the times. She is excited that 63 Washington Street might soon provide a much-needed safe and supportive home for women (and their young children) in recovery from substance use disorder.

“Having a roof over your head is about as basic a need as can be,” Dyer said. “Hard to make a change for the better in your life if you don’t have a safe place to live.”

MCRC board member Patrick Mundy calls MCRC’s focus a “housing-first approach.”

Recovery houses offer a healthy alternative to individuals in lieu of returning from incarceration or addiction to neighborhoods or households where they may be surrounded by others who continue to use drugs or alcohol in ways that could trigger people in recovery to resume their old addictive behaviors.

“Earlier this year, MCRC opened The Friends House in Rockland, a recovery house for men,” said Mundy. “MCRC continues to raise funds to expand services at the men’s facility, but the board is also very excited about serving women in need of supportive housing.”

63 Washington Street’s good and long history —

That’s where Camden’s historic 63 Washington Street comes into play. MCRC’s board is working with their counterparts at fellow nonprofit 63 Washington Street to purchase the property. If the organization can gain the financial and community support they seek, they will be adding to the building’s long history of service — one that has involved women in leadership roles since its inception.

On February 10, 1886, a group of 12 women from the Camden/Rockport area petitioned Justice of the Peace Wilder W. Perry to convene a meeting to incorporate a society for the purpose of establishing “The Home for Aged Women” in Camden. On February 26, attendees at the meeting (held at Chestnut Street Baptist Church) elected a board of eight officers and trustees, consisting of five women and three men. They also decided that the entrance fee for membership would be fifty cents, with annual membership costing one dollar.

The cornerstone at 63 Washington Street was laid in September of 1898. The Camden Home for Aged Women, popularly known then as “The Old Ladies’ Home,” provided room, board, and care for up to eight of the town’s elderly women at a time. For nearly a century, the residence continued its mission — through two world wars and economic ups and downs.

After a few years of inactivity, the residence reopened in 1983, when the First Congregational Church of Camden purchased and took over operation of the property, renaming it “63 Washington Street” and serving men as well as women. Several members of the church comprised its original board of directors, and others from the congregation contributed money to the facility and volunteered their services, including Barbara Dyer, who regularly visited the residents and was volunteer bookkeeper for the Home for years.

When 63 Washington Street opened in July of 1983 as a fully licensed assisted living facility and town-approved nonprofit boarding home, Judy (now McKearney) and Richard Mitchell, members of the First Congregational Church of Camden, moved into the residence, where they remained, with one interruption, until 1995. The couple served as board members and as the building’s administrators, keeping all required records for the state and administering medications to all residents.

“Those were the best years of my life,” Judy McKearney said. “The place was in top-notch condition, and we residents truly were like a big family.” The possibility that 63 Washington Street may write its next chapter by providing a safe and supportive home for women in recovery strikes a chord in McKearney: “That would be great, especially today. I love that it would help women in need help themselves. I am so proud and gratified that 63 Washington Street is in its third century of making a home for those in need.”

Around the same time that Judy McKearney and Barbara Dyer became deeply involved with 63 Washington Street, Jeanne Denny joined the board. Then the director of social work at Pen Bay Medical Center, Denny was deeply concerned about care for seniors, so involvement with Camden’s venerable institution made sense to her. Denny has served as 63 Washington Street’s board president since 2016. Instrumental in helping the board adapt through challenging times, she sees its newly envisioned role as meeting current needs in a way that honors the beloved facility’s history.

“I’ve always been drawn to the homey atmosphere that encourages intimacy among the residents and treats them like family,” she explained. She called to mind numerous residents, including the iconic “waving man,” Mr. Kert Ingraham, who lived there for several years and “whose cheery disposition helped engage the greater community.” She also praised a host of dedicated staff members, volunteers, and board members, including administrator Laura White, “who gently drew out residents’ strengths and individual gifts.” She spoke with pride about the donated painting by noted Maine watercolorist Carol Sebold, which graces the parlor.

Continuing a legacy of serving women in need —

Jeanne Denny doesn’t want to see 63 Washington Street’s legacy end and is working closely with her board and that of MCRC to keep the place she loves alive and well. “The house has been a steady landmark in the community, serving the needs of women,” she said. “Now, it would be an honor to care for women in recovery and their children.”

Befitting its history of involvement with 63 Washington Street, the First Congregational Church of Camden hosted a pancake breakfast on November 10 to benefit MCRC’s efforts to house and support women facing the very difficult challenges of the times.

“That was just the beginning of our efforts,” MCRC board member Connie Gardiner explained. “Substance use disorder impacts all of us directly or indirectly, and women with young children are particularly vulnerable unless they have a base of operations, a place where they and their children can lay down their heads at night and then take useful steps when the sun comes up. The research shows that women in recovery who can remain with their children have better success.”

To purchase and turn 63 Washington Street into a healing home for women in recovery, the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition must raise more than $150,000 by March 31, 2019 — no easy task, but board members of both nonprofits are working together to make this happen. They are not alone. For West Bay Rotarian Kim A. Milton, of Camden National Bank, turnout and involvement in the recent pancake breakfast was a sign that local people care about this issue and are willing to help make that happen. “We had incredible volunteer support from the Camden and West Bay Rotaries, and from First Congregational Church of Camden,” Milton said. “All present were very positive and enthusiastic about the promise of a recovery residence for women and their children, especially in a residence with a long history of helping women in Camden.”

Café Miranda owner Kerry Altiero, who took the lead as chef at the pancake breakfast, paused in his cooking to tell the crowd about his passion for the issue. Making a stop for supplies en route to the church, a woman at the store asked him where he was headed so early on a Saturday morning. When he mentioned the cause, the woman broke into tears, saying, “My son died from an overdose. Narcan brought him back. Now, he’s in jail.” Taking time to help, Altiero provided information about resources available to her and urged her to call Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition for support. The incident delayed his arrival at the church but reaffirmed for him the importance of building community support for recovery services. “Lives are at stake,” he told the crowd. “We can do this!”

The sense that serving women in need matters to Camden residents was evident among those in attendance at the pancake event and also in audience response at the Camden Public Library’s recent showing of several films about recovery, including “Brandi’s Story: Learning to Live Again.” Audience member and nurse Kristin Nelson spoke passionately about the frustration of serving hospital patients with substance use disorder who must return to the same circumstances that brought them to the hospital in the first place. “People come in because they want to detox,” she said, “but where do they go when they leave? ‘I can’t go to my brother’s because he uses. I can’t go to my mother’s because my stepfather has abused me.’”

Nelson was energized to see people turn out to learn about how the national opioid epidemic impacts our own community and about how ordinary citizens can counter the problem. “I am so encouraged to see my neighbors wanting to learn more about the disorder and the need for safe housing for people who really want to be clean and sober. I sincerely hope this community sees how important this is, in order for people to make these significant changes in their lives, and especially for women.”

Securing the necessary financial support to do what Kristin Nelson spoke about will be a challenge, but having lived in Camden for over 20 years she, like Barbara Dyer, a fellow Camdener with an even longer local history, is optimistic about how her neighbors will respond to the crisis that communities of all sizes are facing across America.

Asked if she knows Barbara Dyer, Nelson said, “Only from her newspaper writing.” Two women from different generations see this problem as an opportunity. They share a vision that giving women in need a home while they are putting their lives back together makes sense. They believe that their neighbors should and will support this project. As Barbara Dyer put it, “Helping our neighbors in need — it’s what we’ve always done here!”

Ned Bacchus, who lives in Camden, is the author of “Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning” and a book of short stories,“City of Brotherly Love.”

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