Walking by, you would hardly know it’s there. It’s so easy to miss that its Facebook page even features a map with a large arrow added in to point it out.
The entrance to the Black Bear Exchange, a food pantry and clothing swap program run by University of Maine students to help those in need, is in the back of Estabrooke Hall next to some bike racks, behind a recycling dumpster.
There isn’t much of a sign unless you get right up to the entrance, and even then it’s hand-painted game. The stairs are dark, often blocked by bikes.
This dark, fairly uninviting entrance to the squat, unattractive back of Estabrooke Hall doesn’t seem like much of anything at a casual glance — but if it wasn’t there, the holiday season would be a lot harder for a grateful few.
The premise is simple — bring in some clothes, get some in return. Or, if the need is there, take some clothes for use without swapping.
Shirts and pants of all colors and sizes line the back wall. A large shelf contains a jumble of shoes in various states of wear.
They have a stocked pantry in another room, consisting mostly of canned goods. The shelves, while not exactly full, still hold a variety of items.
“We are sustained through donations only,” said Samantha Kane, a graduate assistant at the Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism and the organizer of the Black Bear Exchange.
“Around the holidays, we usually have a lot more organizations who take an interest in us,” Kane said.
Being sustained solely through donations means the exchange relies entirely on the goodwill of the community. So far, the staff has managed to keep things afloat, many times with the help of fraternities and sororities that hold food and clothing drives.
The exchange is staffed and operated entirely by volunteers, with the lion’s share of the work being done by a single work-study student, Jessica Hamilton.
“We see 10 to 15 regulars every week, with a lot more on Tuesday,” Hamilton said. “The students more often come for clothes.”
For Hamilton, the biggest obstacle at the Black Bear Exchange isn’t getting more donations — it’s getting people to realize they exist.
“Making it known is the biggest obstacle by far,” Hamilton said. “The word needs to be spread more. When I tell people who haven’t heard of it, they’re surprised we have a food pantry. It’s a little hidden in the back of stuff.”
The food pantry itself is sometimes stocked solely with donated food, other times with food they pick out themselves after a monetary donation.
“We try to get pastas and sauce because that can feed a whole family,” Hamilton said.
Difficulties arise in the lulls between food drives, but for the most part the staff manages to keep food stocked for the people who need it.
“They thank me every time,” Hamilton said.
One customer, who asked to remain anonymous, is extremely grateful for the service.
“This helps me out a lot,” he said. “I’m a grad student working and studying at the same time. I’d have to work a lot more if it wasn’t for this program.”
He wasn’t sure how he would be able to stay afloat if not for the Black Bear Exchange.
“I’ve just been struggling,” he said. “I don’t know how I would manage. It’s a really great service for people with low income.”
The customer, who uses the service once or twice every couple of weeks, was wearing pants that came from the exchange as he picked up his food.
“They’re a little bit big, but I just tighten my belt up and they’re fine,” he said.
“I think people should sustain this,” he added. “Those who have extra and can share, why take it to Goodwill? Take it right here. They need all the support they can get.”
Hamilton agreed with the sentiment and expressed hope that more people would be willing to volunteer, which would ease some of the stress on the limited staff.
“I can be up front running things and in the back taking care of folding clothes and preparing things at the same time,” Hamilton said.
For now, the Black Bear Exchange will continue to do what it has done since its inception — help those in need.
At least those who can find the place.