'Miracle' LA-based nonprofit in desperate need of permanent location

·7 min read

Jul. 30—LEWISTON — When the R.E.S.T. Center needed new furnishings on a tight budget, the SHAREcenter answered the call.

For the Oxford Street in-patient treatment program, it would have cost thousands of dollars to purchase all the furniture that was needed.

Instead, the addiction recovery-focused nonprofit paid the SHAREcenter a flat $500 membership fee and received virtually all of the furniture they needed: 20 sets of bed frames, bureaus, desks and chairs.

"It's more than incredible, it's like a gift," said Jeremy Hiltz, founding board member of the R.E.S.T. Center. "It's a miracle. We run on a shoestring budget ... The opportunity to get furniture in such a bulk way, it's a godsend. It really alleviates a lot of stress in my life being able to have this resource in the community."

But this fall, local organizations like the R.E.S.T. Center may no longer be able to obtain such low-cost items from the SHAREcenter, a nonprofit which collects and repurposes a variety of furniture, supplies and equipment.

The SHAREcenter, which currently operates out of the former Martel Elementary School in Lewiston, must find a new home by the end of September as the site is slated to be developed into senior housing. If the organization can't find a new space, it could close altogether.

During its three-year residency at the former Martel Elementary School, the SHAREcenter has grown tremendously. Once an organization which focused solely on supporting schools and educators, the SHAREcenter now additionally serves nonprofit organizations, small business and municipalities.

It's membership list includes the Lewiston and Auburn school districts, both cities, Community Concepts, John F. Murphy Homes, Safe Voices and St. Mary's Nutrition Center, among many other schools and organizations.

Rather than list the items the SHAREcenter carries, it would be far quicker to note what it doesn't. The SHAREcenter stocks nearly everything a school or other organization could need.

"It's a win, win, win," said SHAREcenter Director Lisa Rodrigues. "We're keeping things out of the waste stream, we're getting it directly into the hands of people that need it ... We easily rescue and rehome millions of dollars worth of product every year."

But big operations need big spaces, and thus far she hasn't been able to find an affordable location to move the operation.

"I'm trying not to panic about this, because I really feel like we're gonna get rescued, as much as we rescue," Rodrigues said.

Her belief that someone, somehow, will step forward to help the SHAREcenter through its plight hasn't stopped her from trying to save the organization herself. She's worked with realtors and city staff in both Lewiston and Auburn to find a new home, but hasn't yet had any luck.

"Let's be honest, if she doesn't find a space, this is going to be very bad for a lot of people," said Brandy Hiltz, a volunteer at the R.E.S.T. Center.

When the R.E.S.T. Center's new halfway house opens in the fall, it will be the first 6-month program in Lewiston and Auburn, according to Jeremy Hiltz. There are other, shorter term recovery programs in the area, he added.

"She's really been able to fill the gap and make it possible, really, for us to expand the recovery community in Lewiston-Auburn," said Brandy Hiltz. "Without her, there's no way that we would be able to have done this with our budget."

As more businesses and schools close their physical locations and move online, the need for the SHAREcenter to rescue and repurpose materials is greater than ever before, Rodrigues said.

When Purdue University closed its Lewiston location, Rodrigues and other volunteers were there to move every piece of furniture to the SHAREcenter.

But in order to continue redirecting items away from landfill, the SHAREcenter needs somewhere to bring its items.

Not another temporary space, Rodrigues says, but a long-term location where she can focus on expanding the organization's impact, rather than where it'll move next.

She's searching for a building with at least 20,000 square feet and a loading dock, which would allow the SHAREcenter to receive bulk donations from a nationwide foundation.

"They get donations from like Walmart and Michaels and Joanne's and (other large retailers)," she explained. "They will literally bring tractor trailers full of stuff to us ... if I have the loading dock."

Rodrigues is also aiming to keep the SHAREcenter in the Lewiston-Auburn area: "I think this is where the most socioeconomic need is," she said.

With the help of a realtor, she's found warehouses which meet the SHAREcenter's specifications. But they were just too expensive for the nonprofit to afford. And the directors of both Lewiston and Auburn's community development offices confirmed neither city has a space to offer.

Auburn Director of Business & Community Development Glen Holmes said the local retail market has been hot, and even businesses with ample financial means are struggling to find warehouse space.

"We can't find it for them, and they can pay top dollar," he said. "There's just no available warehouse spaces."

He said he's hopeful, but not optimistic, that the SHAREcenter will be able to find a location which meets their size and financial needs in the current market.

For more than a decade, the SHAREcenter has moved from one place to the next, never staying in a single location for more than several years at a time.

The program first began at Great Falls Elementary School in Auburn, and since then, it's had temporary homes at the East Auburn Community School, storage units in Turner, and eventually to Martel, additionally using the Bates Mill complex for storage. The organization is self-funded, but is still tied to the Auburn School Department.

The organization plans to partner with Community Concepts beginning in September, allowing the SHAREcenter to access more grant opportunities than it currently can under the municipal school department.

Bates College is currently renovating Dana Chemistry Hall and, rather than throw away the outdated, but perfectly usable, specialized equipment, they made a sizable donation to the SHAREcenter.

Thirty lab tables, stools, shelves, cabinets, books, chemistry glassware and more were moved from Bates to the former Martel school. But it didn't stay there long.

Rodrigues connected with a small private school, and soon, much of the furniture and equipment was headed to Ellsworth. The school used the equipment from Bates to set up a laboratory and shelve books in their library, according to Rodrigues.

By paying the $400 membership fee, the school "easily" walked away with more than $30,000 in materials, she said.

The SHAREcenter runs on a membership system based on the size of the organization, with the minimum fee set at $400.

The Lewiston school district, which pays $12,000 for its membership each year, received $150,000 in materials last school year, according to Rodrigues.

Without nonprofit organizations like SHAREcenter dedicated to repurposing used items, more furniture and materials would end up in landfills, according to Bates Sustainability Manager Thomas Twist.

"What people might not know is that it's logistically often challenging and time consuming to (repurpose used items)," Twist said. "If no one has the time, then the temptation is to find the easiest way to get rid of it, which is not always the best way."

Rodrigues says she's "fully confident" that the SHAREcenter will find a new space to operate.

But if it doesn't happen by the end of September, she has a Plan B.

She plans to store much of the SHAREcenter's items in tractor trailer containers and move back into their small space in the Auburn bus garage on Minot Avenue. But, she's still working out whether the plan is financially feasible.

Doing this would be yet another temporary solution to the nonprofit's housing struggles, one which would severely limit the SHAREcenter's ability to provide materials to local organizations.

It would likely also mean that she would need to send some of the SHAREcenter's stock to the landfill, she said.

The SHAREcenter usually closes during the summer and reopens in mid-August. But with the future uncertain, Rodrigues is allowing members to set up appointments to collect materials now.

"I'm not gonna give up," Rodrigues said. "I mean, if I have to run it out of the box truck, I will. I'll do something. We're not done."