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‘Finding the good in people’

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BIDDEFORD – The Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, volunteers say, is a street ministry.

People head into the former Episcopal Church, at 35 South St. in Biddeford, for the warm feeling that food, conversation and just plain companionship can bring. There’s a big rush at 9 a.m., when The Seeds of Hope opens its doors, and by the time it closes at 1 p.m., as many as 80 people have visited.

The Rev. Shirley Bowen is executive director of the center. Her husband Peter, an Episcopal deacon, is one of the volunteers who make this a go-to place for adults young and old in need of a friend. Many are not happy with their lives, and need someone to talk to. That kind of one-on-one is Peter Bowen’s specialty.

“First of all, we listen to people,” he said. “That by itself is of great hope. Sometimes we discover talents, like artistic capabilities they thought they didn’t have.”

The Seeds of Hope is nondenominational, and Peter Bowen is quick to point out that the center does not push religion on people.

“We look at this area as our neighborhood,” he said. “We do not push religion down people’s throats. The people who come here are our congregation. It’s kind of a street ministry.”

In his younger years, Bowen, 67, earned an MBA at the former Nasson College in Springvale. Then, there was an about-face.

“I eventually went through Bangor Theological Seminary, where I got my master’s in divinity seven years ago,” he said.

Episcopal deacons are ordained as priests are. Their activities are closer to people in need, and working with them.

“That’s pretty much our mission here – finding the good in people,” Bowen said.

Bowen emphasized that he is just one of the volunteers. Most come in at around 8:30, and leave around 1:30.

“Some like to chat, others work in the kitchen, others organize stuff,” he said. “I’m in the background. I meet with people and listen to their stories, and refer them to people if we think there’s a next step.”

Recently, The Seeds of Hope began weekly services, each week of a different denomination. There is morning prayer and discussions for those who want it. Bowen conducts the discussions, and Shirley Bowen will do the Eucharist in the upstairs of the old church.

They try to do whatever works for people at The Seeds of Hope.

“Shirley is actually the driving force behind all of this,” Bowen said. “She’s built up an excellent group of volunteers.”

The Seeds of Hope marked its fifth anniversary with a Give Thanks-Give Hope benefit brunch on Sunday, Nov. 24, at The Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport.

“We launched Seeds of Hope in 2008 as the financial crisis began to hit Biddeford and surrounding towns hard,” Shirley Bowen said. “We sought to meet some basic needs by providing hospitality – a simple breakfast, companionship, articles of clothing, in a safe environment.”

Seeds of Hope also has launched a new WorkReady program, a credentialed 60-hour program based on feedback from employers. The program is aimed at providing the basic skills needed to cope in a complex and changing work environment.

“They’re second- and third-generation poor,” said Shirley Bowen. “They’re not having positive role models. What we’re hoping to do is to have dreams again.”

Deb Burke, left, and Deb Lamb are two of the volunteers who make the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center in Biddeford go.   

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