Food is more than important at the Game Loft, it is vital to our program. When you walk through the door at 2:15 you can’t stop yourself, you sniff the air. The wonderful mix of aromas says someone has been cooking all morning in preparation for the day’s meal. When you enter the kitchen you see wheels of fresh fruit and vegetables cut into portions and arranged attractively on plates. Take some. Take a lot, the fruits and vegetables are here to nourish you. The water is fresh and cold in the dispenser. The entrée is bubbling on the stove. And behind it all is Scootch, our dear friend, waiting to serve you. Who could resist this kind of welcome? The bounty is here every day--- fresh, inviting, appealing. It was made by loving hands and is offered to every kid who comes through the door. Take a deep breath because that is the scent of love.

Scootch, our kitchen manager is leaving at the end of December. She will add the Game Loft to her long and varied list of accomplishments. In her lifetime she has been a river guide, a congressional aide in Washington, a radio announcer, a mother and grandmother, a consultant in solid waste management, a youth worker, a writer, a story-teller, and a baker’s assistant. There are probably many more things that she has done, and done well, over her long career. Stop by before she leaves. She tells stories brilliantly and has a storeroom of them in her mind. At the Loft she organized our kitchen and pantry and created systems for our food service. She helped us become members of the USDA food services programs, CACFP and SFSP, which meant learning “bureaucratize” and translating it for the rest of us. She supervised kitchen volunteers and made lots of new friends for the Loft, but most of all she nurtured and nourished our kids

I met Scootch when we were doing the 1960’s project called “Days of Rage”. We had asked community members to come forward with their memories about life in the 1960’s. Scootch called in response to a newspaper article I had written. I was immediately mesmerized by her voice. She has a mellifluous voice. It is a smoky voice that insinuates itself in your mind and makes you smile long after she has finished speaking. It is the voice that got her a job reading pork belly prices on the radio in her native Idaho where an angry listener called the station to complain that “she reads the stock reports like she was selling French lingerie.” Feeding the kids is not at all like slopping the hogs. The hogs will eat anything, the kids are picky. The hogs need to be fattened up, our kids need to be carefully fed according to the best nutritional standards. The hogs don’t care who throws the slops into the trough. Our kids love to know that they matter and that the presentation of their food was carefully considered. Bad manners are routine for hogs but Scootch has taught our kids that respect and gratitude help flavor the meal for everyone.

When Scootch turned 69 recently she took some time to re-evaluate her life. As Samuel Johnson said, it was “a time to be in earnest.” After her retirement from the Loft she will be able to more fully embrace her jobs as grandma to Henry and bakery aide to her daughter, Anne Saggese. We are creating a cookbook for Scootch with the favorite recipes of the friends of the Game Loft. Please contribute a recipe and a memory for our dear friend.

One of the lesser-known Christmas carols was written by Maine’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and is called “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.” Unlike some other Christmas carols it is a story that begins with Longfellow’s own sense of loneliness and loss at Christmas. The country was in the midst of the American Civil War and Longfellow had suffered great losses. It was hard to call up the joy that Christmas is supposed to bring.

I am grateful that this country is not in a war like the Civil War nor is my life full of loss, but if you have seen me recently you know that I am teetering on the brink of exhaustion. It is the Sunday before Christmas and I wonder how I will get through until the 25th. Ray and I stumble home from our jobs at the Loft and the store and eat whatever we can find. This week it has been smoked mackerel and crackers and we have fallen into bed with alley-cat breath. Our house, while never orderly, is in extreme chaos. Our Christmas tree is still tied to the roof of our car and might still be there until New Year’s Day. The Christmas cards are unwritten and I haven’t had time to read the greetings we received. There are no cookies baked and the kitchen floor crunches when you walk across it. The presents are wrapped with care in the store but who knows when we will get around to even shopping for ourselves. Sometimes it all seems like too much. I wonder when I will get some “Me time.” I get angry and petty and wonder why we do this. These are not dire problems but they add up. There is a note I left for Santa on the refrigerator that says, “What I really want for Christmas is a nap!” I could also use an attitude transplant.

I worry that with all these trivial issues I will lose sight of the real joy of Christmas. Will my bad attitude squelch the beauty of the day and the season? I want to love every minute of this but I am tired. I want to get really excited about watching Loft kids dressed as shepherds at First Baptist Church but I know that I will be wishing for a hot bath instead. When Ray asked for a Snickers bar for Christmas all I could think was, “One more person is asking me for something I can’t do.” When I should be sharing the peace with the Christmas congregation I will be daydreaming about how I can stay in bed all day on Christmas and avoid all human contact. And the worst thought will be that I will be wishing for January 6 when the whole process is over and then we face sweet January when nothing much happens. Then I realize that I am at war with myself. I want the joy and excitement of Christmas but I don’t want to pay the price to make it happen not only for me but for others. Maybe Scrooge wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe he was just bone tired.

Then Christmas comes and I hear my own personal bells. I guess these are Game Loft bells. They come in the voices of our alumni who come home for the holidays. I hear them ringing through the updates: “Montana” “living in Portland” “started a business” “student at Harvard” “taking photos all over New York” “going to graduate school” “love the South” “making jewelry that I sell at craft fairs” “working for what I believe” “engaged” “ski all winter long” “my own invention” “bought a house” “wife and baby doing well” “writing a book” and through all of these words I hear that our work has been worthwhile. The kids who came to us to play Pokemon or D&D are now young men and women who are a credit to their communities. They are involved, respected, contributing, and still hold high ideals.

And the words of Longfellow come to me through the lips of our alumni. These “Christmas bells” say:

 

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

‘God is not dead, nor does He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.’”

 

Thank you to all who have made the Loft possible for the past 16 years: the staff, volunteers, donors, friends, families, and especially the kids. Your voices ring in my heart.

Merry Christmas.

 Lille has style, panache and attitude. She lights up a room when she enters. Sometimes she is boisterous, other times withdrawn. She is 14 and brings with her all the fragility and bravado of that age. When Ray met her for the first time she was playing in a Magic: the Gathering card game tournament and holding her own with the boys. He was so impressed that he immediately called me to come to the game to meet her. Although she can be flirtatious she can also face the world without using a boyfriend or an adult to shield her. Then there are the ears. Lille participates in cos-play which is a form of role-play that enters daily life. She wears cat ears every day and sometimes cat whiskers as well. The ears are her outward sign of her inward creativity and sensitivity. Piercings, heavy makeup and hair dye don’t detract from her looks, they anchor her in who she is and her time and place in life.100 5093

Don’t you hate it when your favors get called in? That happened to me last December. When you own a retail store that sells games and toys December is very busy month. There are two words that describe December for Ray and me: work and sleep. When we are not doing one we are doing the other. But when Joel Krueger of the First Church in Belfast, UCC asked us to help with his live nativity play we felt obliged to accept. Joel is a friend and a partner in our ENCOUNTERS program and has helped us many times.

It was a Friday evening and the church slowly filled with people. Joel waited for volunteers to play the parts and Ray was selected to be a wise man and I was a shepherd, or to be more precise, a shepherd’s grandmother. The minutes ticked on and no volunteers arrived to play the holy family. Joel started to pace. No, I would not, at age 66, play the Virgin Mary. Then Ray had a brainstorm and called The Loft. Would anyone come to the church and help with the nativity play?

In five minutes the doors flew open and about a dozen kids rushed in. Lille and her boyfriend were recruited to play Mary and Joseph. Destiny played an angel and Sage a shepherd. When Lille climbed up on the stage I saw that she was wearing purple fuzzy leg warmers under her costume and they stuck out about 8 inches from the bottom. Her lip ring caught the light on the altar. Her cat ears formed a frame for her face that was more contemporary than a halo. I saw her in all her glory and there was a lump in my throat. She was beautiful, contemporary and timeless all at the same time. When Ray presented his wise man’s gift Lille leaned over and whispered, “I hope there are Magic cards in there.”

The pageant ended and our kids rushed back to their dinner and games at The Loft. I sat in the foyer thinking about great events. Each is unique because they are set in time and place but some are so universal that a kid in purple leg warmers can teach you about a virgin from two millennia in the past. I thought about how fragile Mary must have felt and how much courage she displayed and then I wondered about Mary’s taste in clothes.

That was the Live Nativity 2013. Well, as you know, once you have a success you are called upon to do it again and so we did. The Nativity pageant is outside on a Friday night and most of our kids are over 15 who attend on Friday evenings. They are way past the aaaawwwwwwwwww stage one usually sees in Nativity plays but they can still pull your heartstrings. Lille arrived a bit late bursting through the door saying, “I’m here! Where’s my costume, I’m the Virgin Mary.” Brash perhaps, but enlivening, she is our nominee for Mary for a new age. Zach played Joseph with fake beard and glasses who looked like a nervous matzo salesman anxious to get back to the factory. But it was the angels who stole the show. Ray recruited two older kids, Brian and Bradley, to be angels with MacKenna, by saying they could stand in the church belfry three storys above the audience. As they were suiting up I heard Bradley ask, “Does my tattoo show through the arms of this angel costume?” Talk about angels with dirty faces! When I looked up to the spotlights on the belfry I was awestruck. The angels were tall and a bit frightening as divine messengers should be. Mary had transcended her daily cares. Joseph was more of a real person than I had ever imagined. And all the rest of the Loft and ENCOUNTERS kids made me proud to know them. To use a phrase from Fr. Bruce Ritter, “Sometimes God has a kid’s face.”

 

Christmas is always a busy time for us. In addition to running The Game Loft we also do our busiest season of the year at All About Games. I hate to add anything else to the mix because I just get over-tired and crabby. I’m not quite Ebeneezer Scrooge or the Grinch but close.

Last year a family needed our help and we responded. We recruited a seeming battalion of church ladies from First Baptist Church of Belfast and St. Margaret’s Episcopal to bake, sew, teach, and buy for three kids and their mom. We hoped that a full Christmas would make up for the previous year when poverty and depression trumped the Christmas season and the kids got very little. We started out last year by taking the kids to “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” a play produced by the Maskers in Belfast. While there our friend Tom Foster took photos of the kids to share with their father in prison.

The play was a huge success especially with Laithe, age 8 at the time who had heard it read in school. The next week it wasn’t difficult to persuade Laithe to actually be in a nativity play so we trooped over to First Church for their live nativity. The participants were few so Ray and I were recruited to be a wise man and a shepherd’s grandmother. Laithe, a shepherd, was holding tight to a sheep puppet named Grace that he borrowed from one of the good ladies of St. Margaret’s Church. Laithe bathed in all the attention and while Ray escorted the Game Loft kids home I stayed for refreshments with Laithe.

They created the word “winsome” especially for Laithe. With his round face and unsophisticated manner he is charming without effort. He piled his plate with goodies from the reception area and used a dozen creamers to flavor his hot chocolate. Most of the adults had left by this time but a group of older women still manned the refreshment table. In the still room Laithe’s voice piped out saying, “You know, Patricia, someone here sure knows how to cook!” Since he had sampled every offering on the table all the ladies beamed with pride. He was right, of course, they were great cookies.

Then Alan Shumway of First Baptist said to Laithe, “If you would like to do this again you could come to my church on Christmas Eve and be a shepherd.” Laithe jumped at the chance. I was perhaps a little less enthusiastic. Christmas Eve is a very busy day at the store and the end of three solid weeks of extreme busy-ness. Laithe’s family lives out of town with no car so I knew my services would be needed for transportation if nothing else but I wanted time for myself, time to rest, time to decorate my own tree, time to listen to Christmas carols and go to my own church. I did not want to be a sheep in a Christmas pageant. Was that asking too much? I looked at Laithe who was experiencing warmth, a full stomach, fame, and true happiness and I was not proud of myself.

Then Laithe leaned over to me and said quite confidentially, “How old do you have to be to get to be Joseph?” He had a career track in mind and all I had was a bad attitude. “At least 13,” I said thinking that Joseph really should be as tall as Mary. “Patricia,” he asked, “would you come and see me in nativity plays until I can become Joseph?” Who am I to back down in the face of a miracle? Of course I agreed and now I’m on deck to watch or participate in the next year of nativity plays. On December 12 we will do it all again.

If running the Game Loft were only about finding a place for kids to play and giving them a hot meal it would be an easy job but we are really about making improvements in kids’ lives. We are making good memories that might erase some of the pain that so many of them experience every day. It is about helping the marginalized, the forgotten, the abused or abandoned, the bullies and the frightened to overcome their obstacles. It’s about setting the stage where miracles can happen.

I hope to see you at First Church UCC in Belfast this Friday at 5 PM. I hope that I am in the audience and not playing a sheep because some things are just beyond the call of duty.

Please consider a donation to The Game Loft. We are a 501(c) 3 tax deductible charity. Your gift will help change the lives of Maine kids in poverty.

Just in case you thought I was kidding about playing a sheep, here is a very unbecoming photo of me in my “woolies” in 2013.

Stephen hated the school cafeteria. That’s where the bullies hung out at lunchtime and targeted him. He was a pudgy, shy 7th grader and an easy target for bullies. In his 12-year-old mind school was torture and the torture would go on forever.

One day Damiene Roberts, an older boy, saw Stephen sitting miserably at the lunch table and invited him to The Game Loft. Stephen trudged up the stairs to The Game Loft expecting to be bullied in a new setting. Instead he was met by the host on duty who offered him a hot meal. He stood in line with the other kids and found a seat in the Great Hall. He ate a full lunch and nobody bothered him. He was just another kid. He was O.K. Then he was invited to play a game.

Food means more than ingesting calories. Homemade food, lovingly prepared, graciously served, and eaten in the company of friends feeds more than the body. Every year kids like Stephen learn what it means to be nourished rather than just fed. Food, friends and safety are all intertwined. Without one the others are less nourishing.

We can tell that our kids have gotten the message when they take a training course and become volunteers in our kitchen helping our kitchen workers feed other kids. Each year more than a dozen kids volunteer to take a six week training course in food preparation and safety. First they learn mastery and then they share with others.

Damiene stayed with The Game Loft through high school graduation. He broke all the rules, gave us gray hair, and was cherished by the staff and Game Loft members. He still thinks of The Game Loft as part of his home when he returns from various tours of duty in the U.S. military. He’s quieter now and more thoughtful. He started his life protecting others and continues to do so.

Stephen, once round and shy, is now a slender, graceful, athletic young man. He is currently studying at the University of Maine and working as a part-time employee of The Game Loft. One of his great skills is his ability to bring in the marginalized kids and make them feel welcomed and valuable.

These are two success stories. In this business you count successes wherever you find them and you treasure them like rubies because they are precious and rare. Success doesn’t mean that once a kid has found friends, food, and safety that his or her life will always be free from challenges. I wish that were the case. At the Loft we are not building stone walls that will stay in the same place for a long time. We are dealing with that most fragile and transient of all things, adolescent life.

Today they sit around our table and tomorrow they are gone.

Many years ago one of our volunteers said, “I wish I could keep them just as they are right now. I never want to see them grow up.” That was one of the most frightening things I have ever heard in youth work. At the Game Loft we want kids to grow up. We want them to embrace the beauties and terrors of adulthood knowing that they have the strength and resilience to make it. Life is very hard and heartache is inevitable. But the triumph of the human spirit rises above all the suffering.

Please consider a donation to The Game Loft. We are a 501(c) 3 tax deductible charity. Your gift will help change the lives of Maine kids in poverty.

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