Nancy Neu, a well-known Downeast resident who both volunteered and worked for the Mission, passed away on Sunday, October 29. Nancy moved to the region in the 1970s and spent more than 30 years working and volunteering Downeast. It was during this time she started helping out at the Mission. She was always ready to lend a hand and cared deeply about the Downeast community, especially those facing hardship.
Many Mission staff and volunteers will remember Nancy as a passionate advocate. Alongside her son, she began volunteering to unload deliveries for the food pantry. She was passionate about childhood hunger and during her time with the Mission, Nancy championed the backpack program, assisted in creating pantries at local schools, and ran the Summer Meals Program, which provides a breakfast and lunch to all students in EdGE summer camp.
In a 2019 interview about her work, Nancy expressed hope that she could make a difference in others’ lives. She knew what it was like to struggle to make ends meet both as a single mother to three children and later as a senior. Diagnosed with cancer five times, she never saw a challenge as too big or too hard, and she kept moving forward.
That meant supporting the community who had supported her. She gifted the excess vegetables to friends and neighbors, and she also took care of the gardens at Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Ellsworth. While the pandemic kept many people inside, Nancy started gardens at Narraguagus Estates.
Each year, she supported families around the holidays, providing what they needed to have a meal on their table. This year, Nancy wanted to support the whole community with a Thanksgiving Downeast Table of Plenty (DETOP) meal on the Mission’s Downeast campus. She was working on this event at the time of her passing.
Nancy will be remembered as making the lives of those around her better. The Mission invites the Downeast community and those who knew Nancy to join the DETOP meal she planned on Sunday, November 19 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. The event will take place at the Weald Bethel Community Center on the Downeast campus in Cherryfield. With produce provided by Folklore Farm, the meal will include turkey, stuffing, gravy, ham, vegetarian dishes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pies, and more. Nancy arranged for the Tunk Streamers, a six-piece Cajun band, to provide live music. There will be a remembrance area where people can display photos or other objects to remember her by.
In the days since we published this post, we have received notes from people who knew Nancy about her impact and her memory. We are sharing a few below.
Nancy’s good deeds were well known 600 miles south where she grew up. We, the members of the Wissahickon High School Class of 1972, admired her courage and her heart. We were so fortunate that she was able to attend our 50th reunion last October.
You know how sometimes there are forces that we simply do not understand or cannot explain. I administer our high school scholarship fund for graduating seniors each year. Out of the blue in early October, Nancy contacts me and says she wants to give. Part of me thought “Nancy, why don’t you wait.” The other part of me thought “Maybe there is a reason.” I said nothing and am so happy to have complied with what Nancy wanted.
Nancy Neu is someone people talk about for years and years because there was such beauty in her genuine love and care for others. Few have what she had.
Nancy was absolutely lovely and I enjoyed every meeting with her. I wanted to share a poem that Nancy shared with me, that so perfectly captures her beauty.
Can you hear my voice? Poem by Sara Brading
Can you hear my voice? It’s there for all to hear It may not be a usual one Not always very clear Some days it’s hardly there at all But frustrating as it may, I have to persevere, you see As I have something to say
It’s gone The box, the vocal chords They took it all away But can you shut me up? Well, no! As I have something to say
One thing Is that I’m still here With opinions you can be sure Equally as important As they ever were before They may not come across the same Intonation’s not always good But I ask for you to listen, please In a way I can be understood
So here’s the thing, I know I look and sound a different way But I am still me, be patient, please As I’ll always have something to say So if I’m in mid-sentence And I stop, it’s not by choice So I’ll ask you again, in a different way Can you hear my voice?
Walk into any Penobscot Theatre production and prepare to be floored. Mission staff were in mid-October when invited to be the Theatre’s community partner for an upcoming production called Dirty Deeds Downeast. Written by playwright Brent Askari, the play a comedic murder-mystery set on an unbridged island in Maine. At its heart, the play explores the depths of relationships that exist in a small community.
In August, the Theatre’s Executive Director Jen Shepard reached out to the Mission with the request. As co-founder of nonprofit Improv Acadia and a former longtime MDI resident, Jen remembered the Mission’s work with island communities.
The Theatre identifies a community partner that can join a Q&A session and provide context and delve deeper into the themes for each performance, the Theatre looks for a community partner.
Dirty Deeds Downeast centers around a fictional island’s lone police officer solving a resident’s mysterious disappearance. Peppered with witty one-liners, the show goes beyond mystery to touch on community ties, identity, mental health, and other topics.
“Something I love about Dirty Deeds Downeast is that it defies classification,” says Jonathan. “I appreciate art that embraces and celebrates the multitudes that exist in our day-to-day life. So often, we look for an easy classification because it can feel reassuring to have something reliably “known.” But within each person, we play multiple roles (mother, daughter partner, boss, etc)…Like Gerard, the cop at the center of our story, we all seem to be searching for a place to feel at “home” where we can feel both seen and accepted as our full selves.”
Following a packed performance, Mission President John Zavodny took the stage alongside Director of Island Services Douglas Cornman. Both sat with Jonathan to discuss hallmarks of island life as well as answer audience questions. They also provided background about the Mission and its service to Maine islands for the past 118 years.
While some characters in the play want to leave the island, John and Douglas remarked that reality is quite different. Residents take pride in their islands and form tightknit communities that stretch back generations. In the Mission’s work, staff observe islanders sometimes fighting to stay put despite systemic challenges they sometimes face such as housing, healthcare, education, and transportation.
When Douglas asked audience members who had visited a Maine unbridged island, hands flew up. Isle au Haut, North Haven, Swan’s Island, and Islesford were some places they had visited. Theatregoers shared their observations on the islands, noting residents’ resilience, independence, and friendliness.
Dirty Deeds Downeast runs through Sunday, November 5. Reserve tickets today at Penobscot Theatre’s website. Based in the historic Bangor Opera House on Bangor’s Main Street, the Theatre is celebrating its 50th season. As an Actor’s Equity theatre, PTC delivers seven productions annually and draws between 30,000 and 40,000 theatregoers in a single year.
Few of us give a second thought to the water that comes from our taps, but some Mainers have water that may be contaminated. Unsafe levels of heavy metals, arsenic or PFAS are often in our drinking water because of our reliance on wells. According to the Maine Geological Survey, around 40% of Mainers rely on private wells and unlike public drinking water, these wells do not need to be tested for chemicals. Because of this, some communities are unsure if the water they are drinking is safe and how to fix the problem. Now, the Mission is collaborating with the MDI Biological Laboratory and an Island Institute Fellow to empower island residents to test drinking water and what mitigation measures might be possible to ensure water safety.
Jane E. Disney, the MDI Bio Lab’s Associate Professor of Environmental Health began the lab’s All About Arsenic + and Healthy Water/Healthy Aging programs to help provide access to water testing for older Mainers and to understand the relationship between aging and exposure to chemicals in drinking water. Disney is now working to expand the scope of the project to include island residents. “This partnership with the Mission gives us a unique way to engage with islanders of all ages who want to know more what is in their drinking water, whether it might be contaminated, and what to do about that,” she says.
Many island residents already know that the water they drink might be contaminated according to the Mission’s Director of Island Services Douglas Cornman.
“Over the course of my visiting and talking with islanders over the past eight years, I have noticed or been told about the lengths some islanders go to assure safe drinking water,” he explains. “Some islanders rely on neighbors who have safe water to bottle, some have purchased expensive filtration systems, others tell me that they have never tested and do not want to know, while others know that their water is unsafe and cannot access the resources to do anything about it.”
Through the partnership with the MDI Bio Lab, the Mission hopes to break down any barriers that are keeping residents from having their water tested as well as helping them identify how they can mitigate the issue.
Working with Island Fellow Morgan Karns from Island Institute, Douglas, Margaret Snell, Island Services Program Coordinator, and the Sunbeam crew will meet with island residents to let them know more about the program. Morgan already started meeting with islanders earlier this fall when the Sunbeam visited Matinicus, Isle au Haut, and the Cranberries to provide flu shots. “Dozens that we talked to said, ‘yes, I want to participate, please give me more materials and how can I get my water tested?’”
Soon, Morgan will begin to set up locations on each island where community members can pick up water testing kits and then drop them off once completed. In addition, students will be involved in this citizen science project, collecting water samples as part of the Lab’s National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award.
Every September, Marilyn Nickson gets out her list and starts checking it twice. Marilyn, and a handful of other volunteers and Mission staff, spend months planning and preparing for Christmas before the first gift goes out the door. Marilyn, a former “Mrs. Christmas,” worked for the Mission for 37 years and retired in 2018. However, you would not know that during Christmas time, as hardly a day goes by without her presence at the “North Pole” on the Mission’s Downeast campus.
A few years before her retirement, Marilyn became Mrs. Christmas, a role that has been part of the Mission for decades. Mrs. Christmas runs the Christmas Program and is responsible for helping choose and deliver presents to recipients. While she has passed on the title of Mrs. Christmas, Marilyn has had a hand in the Christmas Program at the Mission for more than a decade.
When Marilyn took over the Program, it was still housed at the Mission’s previous home, La Rochelle in Bar Harbor. “The whole third floor was packed with stuff,” she explains. “It took me a long time to just go through everything.” She oversaw the move that brought the Christmas Program to the Downeast campus. That is where you can find Marilyn today, more than two months before Christmas, preparing the Weald Bethel Community Center for the holiday season.
On the lower floor of the Community Center, Christmas becomes a reality for many community members. Marilyn explains that the volunteers are given lists of names of people and sometimes a few notes about each person. While most think about the presents for kids, Marilyn says the Mission fills about the same number of requests for seniors. The Mission is one of the few programs to provide gifts for these community members, and each year the Mission reaches out to nursing and care homes for a list of residents as well as any special requests. Each resident receives a bag of toiletries (something that most facilities require residents to purchase), and the volunteers try to fill requests for specific items like pajamas and grippy socks, as well as candy, jewelry, or makeup. In an average year, Marilyn says the Christmas Program provides around 600 toiletry bags for nursing and group homes. Each facility also receives a community box with lap robes, blankets, movies, games, and books.
Families can also sign up for the Christmas Program and receive gifts for children. Parents and caregivers can send in their children’s interests, then volunteers pick presents for them. Parents and caregivers can also “shop” at the North Pole in the Weald Bethel Community Center if they prefer. Marilyn and the volunteers make sure each child receives a few toys as well as mittens, a hat, and a book. She says, “When we find the perfect items for a child, we are really excited and really happy.”
The Mission also continues to provide gifts for island residents, a tradition that started more than a century ago. Children living on islands usually receive a few small toys, a book, and a pair of mittens and hat. Every gift given by the Mission includes mittens and a hat, with more than 3,000 knitted and crocheted items being sent to the Mission every year.
With more than 11,000 gifts distributed to 1,533 people just last year, Marilyn has had a hand in tens of thousands of Christmases over the years. And she is not slowing down, she loves being part of the program. She quickly rattles off things the Mission needs every year: card games, gifts for teens, clothing, outdoor items. And she is ready to start choosing this year’s gifts, she says the first list came in last week.
Christy shares, “All of these programs are about increasing not only aspirations after high school, but also helping students access and succeed in higher education. They provide so many possibilities to youth Downeast. I grew up in Maine, and I wish I had access to some of these programs myself.”
Christy previously served as the Associate Dean of Student Success at Eastern Maine Community College where she led the college’s accommodation and disability services, counseling and advising programs, as well as residence life. In addition, she managed the college’s TRIO program, which provides services to students who are first-generation, income-eligible, or have a disability. The goal of TRIO is to increase collegiate retention and graduation rates of participants. Prior to that role, Christy spent 15 years working at colleges on the West Coast.
As the new Chief People Officer, Sally oversees the Mission’s human resources department focusing on professional development, planning, assessment, and volunteer and community relations.
“The Mission’s commitment to becoming a learning organization, supporting wellness for staff, and nurturing a positive, inclusive, and empowering culture in the organization and beyond is inspiring and exciting,” Sally says. “It is an honor to join the Mission and I am excited to support the team.”
With more than 20 years of experience working as a human resources and systems specialist in the nonprofit sector, Sally was a nonprofit consultant, owned a wellness studio, and was a Transformational Life and Health Coach on the Blue Hill peninsula. Through her work, she specializes in time management, communication, leadership skills, self-care, wellness, and healthy living. Sally founded and ran a nonprofit in Pennsylvania for almost ten years, gaining wide-ranging experience in all aspects of human resources and nonprofit management.
In the furthest reaches of Washington County and on many unbridged islands, cell service can be spotty and connection to the internet can be costly and slow. This digital divide leaves many people in the Mission’s service area unable to connect to basic services. Islanders struggle to attend telehealth appointments that are key to their treatment and low-income residents of Washington County face high internet costs with lagging speeds.
Less than a quarter of Mainers have access to broadband service, and more than 40,000 do not have any internet access. In rural areas of the state, most residents are paying more than $70 a month for their internet. This high cost puts a strain on many people’s budgets and almost half of Mainers said they had difficulty paying for services.
But change is on the horizon. Through the work of the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA), Maine was recently awarded a $272 million grant to expand high-speed internet across the state and bring internet access to areas where it was not available before. This decision came in part because of work the MCA did with organizations to create Digital Equity Plans for regions throughout the state. In Washington County, the Mission was part of the Sunrise County Economic Council’s Washington County Digital Equity Coalition and for our island residents, the Mission worked with the Island Institute to ensure these communities were represented in these plans.
As part of the Washington County Digital Equity Coalition, Mission staff provided insight and information on community needs for the county’s digital equity plan. The Sunrise County Economic Council is now working to implement this plan, which includes more education around affordable technology and digital literacy. Part of the plan includes educating people about Maine’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This program gives qualified applicants, including those on SNAP, WIC, and SSI, a $30 credit towards the cost of internet. Right now, only thirty percent of eligible households in Washington County have applied. The Mission’s Downeast campus has also become a host site for the National Center for Digital Equity (NDEC) to expand digital literacy in the county. NDEC offers free classes on a variety of different topics from computer basics to setting up a Facebook account. The Mission hopes to be able to hold NDEC classes next year.
For island communities in Hancock and Waldo counties, the Mission represented them during Hancock and Waldo County Digital Inclusion Coalition meetings which were hosted by the Island Institute. Island communities also are usually smaller than their mainland counterparts, and sometimes lack the infrastructure to take on projects like these, The Mission made sure island specific concerns were included in that committee’s digital equity plans. Part of the focus was on the continued need for stronger connections to continue telehealth services on the islands. The crew of the Sunbeam also informed islanders about the statewide digital equity survey that went out earlier this year as well as the ACP.
As these digital equity plans progress, the Mission’s staff will continue to make sure that community members are informed and represented. Learn more about the work that Maine is doing around digital equity and see Washington County’s digital equity plan.