Mindy Cambiar

Mindy Cambiar poses for a portrait outside Hundred Nights in Keene.

As a student at Keene State College in the early '80s, Mindy Cambiar was something of a campus activist, involved in various groups.

Like so much campus activism, it could be exuberant, earnest, aimed at important issues ... and, in retrospect, sometimes a bit silly.

She did a street-theater skit featuring couples who were literally chained together before throwing off those bonds of oppression, casting off their costumes and burning them in a barrel in the middle of Appian Way; Cambiar tossed in her actual wedding dress. Or they'd protest in front of the movie theater when it showed explicit films.

"We would be out there saying things like, 'We're not opposed to people being nude or great sex, we're just opposed to people being exploited!' " she said. "And I mean, that's still true, I still feel the same way, but I think we had some misguided ideas."

Mindy Cambiar is the winner of a 2021 Extraordinary Women award. Video by Cecily Weisburgh / Sentinel Staff. Music: www.bensound.com

But one initiative from back then endured. Around the time she graduated, she helped found The Community Kitchen, a Keene nonprofit that's still around today. That helped launch her on a decades-long career in social services, first there and now at the Hundred Nights shelter in Keene.

Cambiar, 64, of Keene, has served as Hundred Nights' executive director since 2013, leading the organization as it has shifted from a seasonal to a year-round shelter, dealt with a spike in families experiencing long-term homelessness and embarked on a years-long quest to find a new location big enough to meet its needs.

"She has this really deep sense of the other," said Jan Peterson, chairwoman of the Hundred Nights board, who nominated Cambiar for the Extraordinary Women award. "And it's not — I don't think it's naive. I just think she knows that hardship deserves a community response."

Breaking bread together

Cambiar grew up in western Massachusetts, with a "little detour" in Florida after running away from home at 16.

At 18, back in Massachusetts, she and her partner at the time put the names of various New England cities in a hat and picked one. It was Keene.

They arrived in the middle of the night in a van. The next morning, they drove around. "We had no idea where we were, but there was this giant 'for rent' sign, and so we ended up renting a trailer, a little trailer, in Troy, for like $35 a week," she said.

She had a baby, worked at a Mr. Donut and, in 1977, enrolled in Keene State. She graduated in 1983 with a degree in history and economics.

The idea of founding a community kitchen came about after she and a friend went to a conference that included a workshop on such organizations. On returning to Keene, their presentation to people on campus was met with enthusiasm.

"People were so excited about the idea of starting a — not 'soup kitchen,' but 'community kitchen,' so that people could break bread together, and no 'us versus them' was the big thing," she said.

Cambiar "sort of fell into the job" soon after graduation because, out of the group, she was the only one without employment. With the backing of St. James Church, they served their first meal that July, Cambiar said. She recalled it was minestrone soup.

"We made like 25 gallons," she said. "And at the end of the night, we actually had 25 people who came to eat. So we were like, 'Whoa, this is amazing!' But then it was like, 'Oh my God, we have like 23 gallons of soup left, what are we gonna do with it?' "

From 100 nights to all year

The effort grew into The Community Kitchen, where Cambiar spent 24 years before stepping away.

She said she was burned out — that year, the youngest of her three children graduated college and both her parents died.

She found a "mindless" service gig at Keene State. Eventually, she rented out her house, jumped in her camper with her dog and traveled around the country for 3½ years.

Back in Keene, working at the college again, Cambiar ran into Hundred Nights founder Don Primrose around the beginning of 2013. He asked her to serve as treasurer of the board, and she agreed to think about it.

"The next thing I knew, I was voted in as treasurer," she said. Soon after, she volunteered to serve as interim executive director when the previous one left.

“We knew we had to have some serious conversations about staying open longer than 100 nights," she said. "And so we did it very slowly. It was like, let's add a week on the beginning and a week on the end."

In 2017, for the first time, the shelter saw "an explosion of families."

"It had always been one or two families ... who came in for a night or two during the year," she said. "But there had never been families just experiencing homelessness on a long-term basis. We just never saw that before."

That year, she said, Hundred Nights was scheduled to close on Easter. The day before, she saw a mother who'd been staying there with her three small kids, making Easter baskets for them.

"All I could picture was these three little kids with their Easter baskets and their like garbage bag full of stuff, and not having anywhere to go," she said. "And I started making calls."

In addition to a few families, the shelter was also housing a couple men with serious health issues, including a terminal cancer patient. One of the men's doctors, Cambiar said, had told her he wasn't healthy enough to make it in the woods. The Hundred Nights board agreed to stay open for the families and medically vulnerable residents, she said.

"We did that that year, and we haven't been closed a day since," she said.

Meanwhile, Hundred Nights began searching for a new location, having outgrown its current space on Lamson Street, according to Cambiar. It took several years, with multiple possible sites falling through before the organization won planning board approval in August to build a new facility at 122-124 Water St. Cambiar said she expects to break ground in the spring. 

"Mindy knows how to pick herself up," Peterson said. "We hit many, many guardrails on our path to getting approval for the rebuild ... She hits the guardrails, and she gets sad, and then she figures out the next day, what do we do next?"

A sense of belonging

In Cambiar's experience, homelessness is stigmatized in a way that hunger, say, is not. She's noticed that from her time at both The Community Kitchen and Hundred Nights.

"You can talk about people being working poor when you're talking about food insecurity. And you can talk about how much waste there is, and how much food gets thrown away. And people get it," she said.

"... But when you start talking about people being homeless, there's this shift, sometimes, that is weird to me. It's like — you could be talking about the same exact people, but it's like they're looked at totally differently ... All of a sudden, it's like their fault, they're doing it to themselves, they're choosing the lifestyle."

There will likely always be some need for emergency shelter, she said. But the severe lack of affordable housing is preventing many people from getting back on their feet.

"We've had people, for the first time, who've been with us for a year or more because we have not been able to find apartments," she said. "... And it's not for a lack of trying. These are people who either work and have an income, or have disability." 

In 2019, she said, Hundred Nights got 54 people into permanent, stable housing. Last year, that number was 13. One family, a single mother with three kids, has been at the shelter for over a year, Cambiar said — her income just isn't enough for landlords to rent to her, and she's far down the list for subsidized housing.

Despite the difficulty, Cambiar says she loves the work. Especially the people.

"I find it much easier to hang out with and converse with the people who are experiencing homelessness, for the most part, than I do with — like I'm totally intimidated, you take me to the country club to have a talk with the blah-blah club, and I'm like, 'No, I don't know the first thing about talking to these people!' " she said.

And it's rewarding to see the gratitude of people who've received a helping hand.

"There are people who come up to me after they've been housed in the shelter, and you get them birthday presents, we get their kids birthday presents with the help of the community," she said. "And the look on their faces when that kind of thing happens, it's like they finally have some sense of 'I belong too.' "

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