- As Mainers gather to give thanks today, the blessings extend beyond the bounty tabled before them or even the reaffirmation of family bonds as relatives reunite. Thankfully, there are people who look beyond their own table, their own family, to that broader community of humanity that, without them, would be diminished. Here are 10 people for whom we are thankful as they work diligently, often without recognition, to comfort, protect, nurture and inspire, and so make our world a better place.
Peggy Lynch of Old Orchard Beach is being recognized for her work as an Outreach Worker at Preble Street in Portland. Photographed Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at her home. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer
Outreach worker at Preble Street
When she was 19, Peggy Lynch embarked on her first social service role, staffing the crisis hotline for what was then Ingraham Volunteers. Now, Lynch has been an outreach worker with Preble Street, an agency that offers services for the homeless, for 12 years and she has no qualms about hiking out to an encampment of homeless people, pulling up a milk crate and listening to their stories. Even people who are chronically suspicious of officials, and those caught in in substance abuse or mental illness, listen to her. Sometimes they let her lead them to housing and medical care. “She connects with people that almost no one else can,” said Josh O’Brien, who runs Portland’s Oxford Street homeless shelter. Lynch has worked with Milestone Shelter’s Homeless Outreach and Mobile Emergency Team, responding to people incapacitated by alcohol. She now also works with homeless veterans, splitting her time between projects in York County and in Portland. Homeless outreach means finding people who need help and persuading them to accept it, she said. “You really need to be a good listener, non-judgmental, compassionate,” she said. “A lot of what I do is meet people literally where they’re at.” Jon Bradley, associate director at Preble Street, says that although she has no formal social work training, Lynch has a presence that even wary people warm to. “She’s amazing at engaging people,” he said. “She is the best outreach worker I’ve probably ever met.”
Monday, November 19, 2012. Claude Rwaganje heads the Community Financial Literacy agency in Portland. John Ewing/Staff Photographer
Executive director of Community Financial Literacy.
Claude Rwaganje may be soft-spoken and humble in his demeanor, but he gives tough love and firm advice to his students: Save money, invest in your future and live within your means rather than on credit cards. As director of Community Financial Literacy, Rwaganje’s goal is to teach financial skills to immigrant and refugees in Maine. With free classes and one-on-one counseling, Rwaganje gives people the financial knowledge they need to create a life for themselves and avoid predatory lending and high-cost financial services. “What’s foremost in his mind is helping others,” said Greg Hansel, chairman of the board of Community Financial Literacy and a partner with the law firm Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios. “His group is all about serving others, about getting people on their feet in America.” Community Financial Literacy started about five years ago as members of immigrant communities discussed their biggest challenges in coming to the U.S. They found that lack of knowledge of financial skills often interfered with many new immigrants’ efforts to integrate into American culture, Rwaganje said. Rwaganje himself immigrated to the U.S. in 1996 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “He’s been through the experience himself and tried to get his arms around the American financial system. Americans who are born here have enough trouble with it without having the trauma that refugees experience and coming from communities that don’t trust banks,” Hansel said. “He’s a visionary who created a way to solve a problem.”
Monday, November 19, 2012. Joan Sheedy has started a program in which volunteers shovel porches, sidewalks, and steps of elderly people. Sheedy keeps track of her 156 clients and the volunteers with her notebook and her home phone. John Ewing/Staff Photographer
Founder of the Senior Snow Shoveling Project
After every snowstorm in Portland, squadrons of volunteers – mostly high school students – fan out throughout the city to clear snow for the elderly. Joan Sheedy coordinates the operation from her living room at the Bayview Heights senior housing facility atop Munjoy Hill. The program, which Sheedy started seven years ago, is now being promoted as a model for other cities by the National Association of Triads, a nonprofit in Alexandria, Va., that works with law enforcement agencies on initiatives to make seniors feel more secure. “We need more Joan Sheedys,” says Terri Hicks, the group’s program coordinator. “She’s a dynamo.” Sheedy started the program after the city began fining people $110 for not removing snow on their sidewalks. Angry that seniors on fixed incomes were getting fined, Sheedy realized the solution was simple: Match all the high school students who need to perform community service with elderly people who need help with snow removal. While high school students provide most of the muscle, other shovelers include pre-release prisoners from Cumberland County Jail and volunteers from the Boys Scouts and the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine. More than 150 households receive the service, which is free to Portland residents at least 65 years old. “I am very happy in my 77th year because I know I’m doing a good service for a whole lot of people around the city,” she says.
Dr. Reed Quinn at Maine Medical Partners Cardiothoracic Surgery Tuesday, November 20, 2012. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Pediatric heart surgeon
Two young Dominican girls and a 12-year-old boy from El Salvador who received heart surgery at Maine Medical Center this year are among the hundreds of children Dr. Reed Quinn has helped at no cost. Quinn is the state’s only pediatric heart surgeon and founder of the Maine Foundation for Pediatric Cardiac Surgery, which funds six to eight operations in Maine every year. The organization has paid for about 150 surgeries Quinn has performed during nine trips to train doctors in China. In May, he and his surgical team will travel to Kenya for the first time. Quinn is the former president of the Mormon Church’s Augusta stake and the father of six children, ages 10 to 34. A native of West Point, N.Y., he came to Maine in 1992 and has been the head of cardiac surgery at Maine Medical for eight years. Quinn’s foreign patients have included a 7-year-old from Cameroon and a 5-year-old from Iraq who made headlines in 1997 and 2005, respectively, when they came to Maine for heart surgery. Most of his patients, however, are local, and of all ages. “We’ve never not operated on anybody in the state that has needed it,” he said. Quinn was inspired to go into pediatric heart surgery in his third year of medical school, after meeting a sick toddler who died from her heart condition. Since then, he’s vowed to use his skills to help anyone in his path. “I don’t know who pays me and who doesn’t, and I really don’t care,” he said.
On Monday, November 19, 2012, Carol Leones, who started Teens to Trails with her husband, Bob Leone, is one of 10 people we should be thankful for. Here she sits for a portrait at the Bohemian Coffee Shop. " Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer
Carole and Bob
Founders of Teen to Trails
When their two daughters were younger, Carol and Bob Leone spent much of their free time outdoors; hiking, biking, skiing, whatever. They assumed every Maine family did the same. It wasn’t until their youngest daughter died and they were looking for a way to turn their grief into something positive that they realized that wasn’t the case. So they founded Teen to Trails as a way to encourage young people to love the outdoors, something that has become challenging in an increasingly digital world. “All you need to do it get them outside, though. It sells itself,” Carol Leone, 61, said. Teens To Trails also serves as living, breathing tribute to Sara Leone, who was killed in a car accident almost seven years ago. She was 15. Her mother said Sara loved being outdoors. It was a part of who she was. Now, her parents spend countless hours and have nearly drained their savings account to promote outdoor activities for other Maine teens through their nonprofit organization. When Carol first started calling schools to ask it they had outing clubs, the typical response was, “A what?” In five years, Teens to Trails has helped established 75 outing clubs at high schools. Carol said her goal is to have one in each Maine schools. “Then I’ll move on to the middle schools,” she said. The couple hasn’t done it alone. After Sara died, Carol said she and her husband, “needed to surround ourselves with people who were doing great things.” The founding board members of Teens To Trails and its supporters over the years have matched the Leones’ passion. And that’s how they keep going, Carol said. That’s how they survive. That’s how Sara lives on.
My Sisters Keeper founder Myrna Cook is photographed in the chapel of the Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church on Saturday November 10, 2012. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer
Founder of My Sister’s Keeper
Myrna Cook founded My Sister’s Keeper in 1999, because of one woman’s plight. The program, a volunteer faith and mentoring program that is now funded by Bureau of Justice grant money to help female inmates after they are released from jail, stemmed from Cook’s volunteer work with her church, Cape Elizabeth United Methodist. “I was in every Thursday afternoon for an hour or hour and a half and met with women who were interested,” Cook said. At first the meetings were just to let the women to get to know each other. But then Debbie, one of the women, called Cook the morning she was released and told her she had almost no money, no place to live and was going to get her children from a relative who had been caring for them. “She was on her way to Portland. All she had was $3 in her pocket, but she had to get her children out of there,” Cook said. Cook was scheduled to have a weekly meeting at her home. “Instead of having a meeting, I told them about this thing that was happening with Debbie,” she said. The women went into action. One found Debbie and her children a room. Another took care of groceries. Within a week, Debbie had a part-time job and her children had a home. My Sister’s Keeper has since expanded to include 35 to 40 trained mentors to women newly released from jail. “That’s how it started,” Cook said of My Sister’s Keeper. “It was nothing on paper. It was all in the hearts.”
Donald Simoneau, of Fayette, said he is grateful that the World War II memorial in Livermore Falls will be dedicated in December that he's devoted 20 years of work to erect. Over 700 names will be inscribed in the monument. Andy Molloy/Staff Photographer
Don Simoneau is an Army veteran who doesn’t consider himself a hero. Simoneau has been confined to a wheelchair for more than 30 years, the result of injuries after an accident. He also suffers from a chronic blood disorder that possibly stemmed from exposure to Agent Orange while he was stationed at Fort Gordon, Ga., a test site for the defoliant. But Simoneau continues to soldier on, making sure the men and women whom he does consider heroes receive the honors and benefits he thinks they deserve. As the legislative chairman of the Maine Department of the American Legion, Simoneau has testified in both Washington, D.C., and in Augusta in support of legislation benefiting veterans. Most recently, he helped raise funds to support the family of Army Sgt. Helaina Lake, a military police officer from Livermore Falls who was severely wounded last June while serving in Afghanistan. In 2006, Simoneau spearheaded an effort to purchase flags for graves in veterans cemeteries in Springvale, Augusta and Caribou for Memorial Day. Last May, nearly 400 volunteers placed more than 15,000 American flags. Simoneau also worked to upgrade the World War II monument in Livermore Falls, his hometown. On Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, two brass plaques listing the 726 men and women from Livermore and Livermore Falls who served in World War II will be dedicated. “I was brought up to believe if somebody needed their driveway cleared, you shovelled snow,” Simoneau said. “If they needed their lawn mowed, you mowed it.”
Nancy Oden harvests medicinal herbs, tansy and goldenrod, in her Jonesboro organic garden. Photo by Peter Aldridge
Since moving to Washington County in 1979, much of Nancy Oden’s environmental activism has focused on curbing or eliminating the use and proliferation of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. An organic grower, she was the leader of successful campaigns over three decades to bar waste incineration and disposal that would have allowed millions of tons of out-of-state garbage to be dumped in townships 30 and 14 in Washington County. She helped halt a proposed jetport in Jonesboro that threatened wetlands, and organized a citizen’s referendum to stop virtually all aerial spraying of pesticides in Downeast Maine. “These issues flow into one another,” says Oden, who acknowledges that more than 35 years of activism, virtually all of it without pay, has required constant vigilance and struggle. She has attended countless public meetings, cajoled people to care about issues that often seem too big to tackle, and given up private time to make a difference in the future of the state and the planet. Oden is a conscientious troublemaker, a characterization she sees as a vindication of her work, not a condemnation. She has agitated against special interests and corporate greed in her unrelenting effort to protect Maine’s natural resources, farms, fisheries and families from harm. Oden’s dedication to the effort to preserve a clean earth for future generations has been a spark of hope for other environmental activists in Maine.
Victoria "Tori" Pabst, photographed in her home Tuesday, November 20, 2012, is a Westbrook senior who took a stand against bullying last year and has since gone public with the story. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Standing up against bullying
Victoria Pabst is glad she took a stand. Last school year, Pabst found herself the target of intense bullying. She spend much of her junior year at Westbrook High School getting pushed into lockers, taunted by classmates and deluged with hateful Facebook posts, text messages and tweets. Finally, she had enough. Pabst, who goes by “Tori,” wrote a 1,045-word letter about her ordeal and went on WLOB radio to tell her story. Morning host Ray Richardson posted her missive on his website, where it got tens of thousands of hits. Some of the bullying intensified immediately afterwards, but then stopped altogether. Teachers and her “real friends” came out in support. Some of the kids apologized. “I don’t think they realized themselves how bad it was, but they definitely understood afterward,” said Pabst, now a high school senior. Six months later, Pabst says she no longer dreads going to school. She’s getting good grades and preparing to go to college, where she plans to study psychology. She’s glad that her experience may have helped others. People contacted her mother, and classmates told her she was being called a role model on Twitter. Richardson organized a community forum on bullying. Pabst said she didn’t know that going public would be such a big deal. “Not first off, but after, I realized, this is getting really big,” she said. “I didn’t expect that much attention, but it was something that needed to be touched on.”
Monday, November 19, 2012. Reverand Jeff McIlwain, chaplain at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland. John Ewing/Staff Photographer
Volunteer pastor at Cumberland County jail
The thousands of people who have broken the law and spent time at Cumberland County jail call him simply “Rev.” It’s a shorthand that seems misleading given the essential role Rev. Jeff McIlwain serves in the state’s largest jail, bringing compassion and facilitating a spiritual rehabilitation that can lead to changing behavior. McIlwain is the jail’s pastor who also oversees the work of between 40 and 50 other faith-oriented volunteers. He also mentors people training in clinical pastoral education through local hospitals. McIlwain does not downplay the crimes people have committed or minimize the harm they have caused to others and themselves, but still he is extremely popular with inmates hungry for spiritual guidance. “I see Jeff being with inmates in the way God would be with inmates – present, listening, affirming the goodness that is in them, while also speaking the truth,” said Macauley Lord, a volunteer pastor who has worked with McIlwain at the jail for the past year. “There are some murderers here and some people who sold drugs to kids,” Lord said. “Those things are bad for the world, and yet when I see Jeff with inmates, I see someone who meets them where they are as human beings, even though some have done inhuman things.” McIlwain is a Christian preacher and that is evident when he leads a bible study, Macauley said. But he is sought after by people of all faiths and those with no particular faith. He is adept at helping people find whatever spiritual resources they have within them. “He is a very caring person. He just loves human beings…most of the time,” Macauley says with a smile.