Amherst Survival Center moves into new $1.5 million building
Volunteers Emily Taverna, left, Steph Robinson and pantry coordinator Shelly Beck get the pantry ready for pickups at the Amherst Survival Center.
Randi Stein makes Latkes in the Amherst Survival Center's new kitchen.
Bekki Craig, a staff member at the Amherst Survival center writes the daily schedule on the board in the dinning room Friday morning.
Karen Brown, left, and Bekki Craig get the free store ready to open at the Amherst Survival Center.
Karen Brown wipes down tables to get ready for the bread pickup at the Amherst Survival Center.
Staff,volunteers and guests are settled into the new Survival Center building on Sunderland Road.
The Amherst Survival Center, which operated for 34 years out of a cramped basement, moved on Dec. 3 into a spacious new $1.5 million building that’s filled with light and good cheer.
“It’s been like a dream come true,” said Linda Lloyd of Hardwick, who came to the center at 138 Sunderland Road last Friday.
The center provides food, clothing, health care and community for people in need, including families, the working poor and individuals who are homeless or on fixed incomes. After an initial surge when 80 people came through the doors in the first 10 minutes on opening day, the attendance has stabilized at its previous level of 130 to 200 people a day, said program director Tracey Levy.
The center, almost twice as big as the old one, has a dining room that seats 80 people comfortably. In the old center at 1200 North Pleasant St., guests had to eat lunch in shifts and some had to eat outside. There is space for the free medical clinic, more parking, better facilities for storing and distributing food, and easier drop-off of donations.
For the first time, there is space for private conversations.
One problem the Survival Center has not yet resolved is transportation. Bus service doesn’t extend past the stoplight in North Amherst, necessitating a half-mile walk to get from the bus stop to the new center.
A committee of friends of the Survival Center is working on the bus problem with Town Manager John Musante, who is chairman of the PVTA’s advisory board.
“For most guests, a five-minute walk isn’t prohibitive, but for a small percentage it presents a significant challenge,” said Levy. “The cold weather will be an issue. We’re working with a taxi service to come up with a short-term plan that’s affordable and reasonable.”
Approximately 10 people who were regulars at the old center had not shown up at the new one as of last Friday, and lack of transportation may be the reason, she said.
Musante said extending the bus line would cost about $28,000 a year. The question, he said, is who would pay for it.
“We’re actively exploring it,” he said. “There are no cost-free solutions, and there’s no time line. That cost is prohibitive for the town to take on, but we’re working with the Survival Center and PVTA on possible approaches that might work.”
Guests interviewed last week had a variety of opinions about the bus service. Carmina Fontes said she likes walking from the spot where the bus leaves her at the center of North Amherst. Tom Devine said he doesn’t mind walking, but added, “when the snow breaks out, we’ll see.”
Theresa Soper of Sunderland, who takes the bus, called it a “tremendous problem. If someone had a child in a stroller or a physical disability, they’re limited in their ability to get here.” The walk also limits the amount of food and clothes that some guests can take home, she said.
Staff and volunteers have been fielding many questions about donations and bus service, Levy said. They also have to explain that the washer-dryer, located near the entryway, is for homeless people only and not other guests, she said.
“You can tell when someone hasn’t been here before, because they look up and see all the light and say, ‘Wow, you guys deserve this,’ ” Levy said. “We all deserve it. People are impressed with how organized the food pantry is, and that there are places for everyone to sit. They’re thrilled with all the space and light, and it is now comfortable to spend all day here.”
The Survival Center’s “free store” opened on Monday. It features donated clothing, books, videos, small appliances and household items, and has the look of a thrift shop. In the former building it was often a walk-through area for guests more interested in other services, said coordinator Bekki Craig.
The store opened two weeks later than the rest of the center because Craig was coordinating a free holiday gift program. On Dec. 12 and 13 at Immanuel Lutheran Church she set up tables filled with gifts for children, including donated toys, coats, books and stocking-stuffers. About 300 families were eligible to participate, she said.
The Survival Center met its fundraising goal of $2.5 million, with donations coming from 600 individuals, businesses and foundations. In addition to the building, that money paid for land acquisition, architects’ fees and furnishings. The center is considering buying a truck and also paving the delivery area with some of the leftover money, Levy said.
For years, the idea of a new building seemed like a fantasy, said Jan Eidelson of Amherst, president of the center’s board.
“Some thought it couldn’t be done,” she said. “But we were lucky enough to find so many of our longtime supporters and old and new friends willing to lend their time and expertise during the planning and throughout the construction and fundraising campaign.”
Last Friday, the Survival Center was bustling with guests, staff, volunteers and donors.
Matt Turner, who is graduating from the University of Massachusetts this month, was dropping off pots, pans and other household items as he prepares to leave the area. “I wanted to give back to people who can use these things,” he said.
Tini Sawicki, owner of Sawicki Real Estate, was volunteering at the new reception desk. “It’s something I could do,” she said. “If you do business in town, you need to give back.”
Executive Director Cheryl Zoll said she approached the opening of the new center with a mixture of satisfaction and disbelief. “I am kind of in shock after all the work that’s gone on by so many people over the past three years,” she said.
Guest Linda Lloyd was impressed: “It’s so bright and smells all brand-new and fresh and clean.”