During the holiday season, it’s natural to give attention and thanks to those who work hard to supply gifts and meals to people in need. But the unsung, everyday volunteers are the glue that keep local civic organizations and nonprofits functioning throughout the year.

These are the people who can always be counted on to show up and do what needs to be done, whether it’s swinging a hammer, cooking for seniors, donating blood or simply stuffing envelopes.

These are people like Stanley Cox of South Portland, who has worked to protect farmland in a city increasingly overrun by development, and who has also found time to help a down-on-his-luck neighbor in a time of need.

These are people like Jeffrey Wood in Westbrook, who created a foundation to provide hope and comfort to patients suffering from life-threatening illnesses, or Mary Vanderburgh of Windham, who despite her battle with multiple sclerosis volunteers several days a week at the Windham Food Pantry, sitting on the floor to stock shelves when her legs tire.

And these are people who get satisfaction from knowing they’ve made a difference – even if it’s just a small difference – to someone who needed a helping hand.

Preserving land, ?helping others

For years, Stanley Cox has been working behind the scenes to make South Portland a better place to live, work and visit.

Cox, who lives at 460 Highland Ave., has been instrumental in promoting recycling practices in the city by spearheading a voluntary recycling program.

“Recycling is my No. 1 interest and I try to use every opportunity I get to promote recycling through education,” he said.

When the City Council was on the verge of adopting a pay-per-bag trash removal system in 2001, Cox, who currently sits on the Energy and Recycling Committee, collected signatures and designed a presentation to sway the council’s decision to abandon the pay-per-bag system in favor of a voluntary curbside recycling program.

Cox said even though the pay-per-bag system creates more of an incentive to increase recycling because residents have to pay for every bag of trash they throw out, South Portland is lucky to have the voluntary recycling program for its residents.

“Not only do they avoid the frustration of buying bags every week, but there is a significant hidden cost savings for people,” Cox said. “Most homeowners itemize property taxes on their income tax return. In doing so the government, in effect, reduces the cost of their property and thus reduces the cost of their trash pickup. The government does not help pay-per-bag users to buy their trash bags.”

Committed to seeing the program launched, Cox helped the Public Works Department deliver recycling bins throughout the city and helped make compost bins available.

City Councilor Maxine Beecher said Cox is quick to find solutions to problems he sees in the city, including in 2003, when he fought to keep alcohol out of city-owned parks and athletic fields.

“Stan is one of those exceptional people that doesn’t just recognize problems, he does something about them,” Beecher said.

Cox, who owns a horse farm, was the driving force in preserving farming rights on three pieces of land in town, including his property at 876 Highland Ave.

“I am so proud to say that I live in a city of 23,000 people and in the middle of it is this beautiful horse farm owned by Stan Cox,” Beecher said. “It is open space at its best. In the summer you so frequently see cars stopped and kids hanging on the fence maybe feeding a carrot to a horse.”

More recently Cox has taken to helping a neighbor in need. The neighbor, who lives further south on Highland Avenue, has run into financial hardship after he was forced to place his 91-year-old father into the Barron Center in Portland a month ago.

When the neighbor soon found it difficult to pay his monthly bills, Cox came to the rescue, working with the Department of Human Services to get the man into the food stamps program and find ways to save money while other arrangements can be made.

“I am trying to help him so he can stay in his home,” Cox said.

Cox, said Beecher, “is an example of the neighbor who asks nothing but gives all.”

– Michael Kelley

A neighbor embodies hope

Those in Westbrook who have never met Jeffrey Wood might know him as the dog walker.

After all, Wood makes a five-and-a-half-mile trek with his dog every day.

But he would prefer if his fellow community members knew him on a first-name basis. And he is doing everything he can to make it so.

Wood is the founder of the eHope Foundation, a nonprofit that facilitates care-giving communities to provide support for sufferers of life-threatening illness and their families.

Wood, a 52-year-old retired Army sergeant from Wisconsin, has lived in Westbrook for around 15 years. The fierce independence of Mainers and New Englanders, he found, was in stark contrast to the closeness he felt in the Midwest and the military.

Instead of truly knowing our neighbors, Wood said, we now “get to know the neighbors through the blinds” on our windows. Relationships are distant and tenuous, he said.

A consequence of that is a decline in social capital, which Wood described as the reciprocal agreement that ensures people care for one another.

Formerly a human resources director in the corporate world, Wood’s calling shifted several years ago when, from his screened-in back porch, he watched a woman next door pulling an oxygen container. He approached her and learned she was diagnosed that day with terminal lung cancer.

“That was kind of a calling to step up and be good neighbors,” Wood said.

From there, Wood began visiting patients at Maine Medical Center, where he met Mary Jo Taylor, who had a type of bone cancer called multiple myeloma. She served as the center of eHope’s pilot group, Wood said.

Family, friends and neighbors band together through eHope to assist those with cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease or other life-threatening maladies. They do the little things – cook dinner, take out the trash, or simply provide companionship – ensuring that those in need are not alone.

Wood has shown a willingness to go way beyond the little things. After Taylor passed away in October 2009, he donated a kidney to a man he had never met.

He also wants to spread eHope’s ideals beyond sick beds. He lives on Brown Street, well known in Westbrook as a high-crime area. But he doesn’t buy that perception.

He has started up community potluck dinners in the summer on a city-owned lot near his home. They have attracted around 30 participants, he said.

Some in the neighborhood still watch the gatherings warily through the blinds. Wood is hopeful they will someday take down the barrier, get to know the neighbors and learn what reciprocity is all about.

– Joey Cresta

Giving all,

despite illness

Despite a 22-year battle with multiple sclerosis, Mary Vandenburgh volunteers several days a week at the Windham Food Pantry. The soft-spoken Windham native is an inspiration to her friends and family.

“She’s the most loyal and devoted person in the town of Windham. She’s the most devoted volunteer I’ve ever had,” said food pantry director Madeline Roberts.

Vandenburgh, who uses a cane, can’t stand for too long without her legs getting overly tired. To compensate, she sets up camp on the pantry floor and fills bags for the patrons.

“That’s why she likes volunteering at the food pantry,” said her sister, Diane Loring, also of Windham and also a volunteer at the pantry. “She’s able to work at her own pace and sit on the floor packing bags. It’s something she can do.”

Vandenburgh works Mondays and Fridays – Mondays because that’s the busy day when clients come to retrieve their staples and Fridays because she likes to get ahead in order to make her Mondays a little less taxing.

Vandenburgh enjoys the work, and enjoys making a difference.

“I used to be a CNA (certified nursing assistant), so I’ve always been a caregiver. I like giving back to others. It gives me a purpose,” she said. “Everyone should volunteer if they can.”

She says times are tough right now for many Windham families.

“It’s busy. It’s been very busy up there,” she said.

Vandenburgh, who has volunteered at the food pantry for five years, chooses to give back even when her body says she should rest.

“MS is kind of a tricky thing,” Vandenburgh said. “I’m not in a lot of pain; it’s more just tired. The muscles in my legs get too tired. I’m better in the a.m., then I’ll come home and take a nap afterward.”

Not limited in her acts of kindness, in the past Vandenburgh has knitted hats and mittens for residents at the Ledgewood Manor nursing home on Route 115 in North Windham. She also takes in redeemable bottles and cans at her home at 297 Windham Center Road. She uses the donated bottles to pay taxes on the Windham Land Trust-owned property at Black Brook Preserve, located across from her property.

For the last 10 years, Vandenburgh displays a purple bin outside her home into which passersby can drop their bottles. She then counts each of the bottles, divides up the different colored glass, plastic and aluminum and hauls them to a redemption center in North Windham. Loring says the redemption company trusts Vandenburgh’s record-keeping enough that the manager just hands over whatever Vandenburgh says she’s owed. In all, she racks up about $1,000 a year, enough to pay the taxes on the 120-acre wooded parcel.

“She is very humble, easy-going,” Loring said. “She doesn’t brag about what she does.” – John Balentine

Jeffrey Wood, founder of the eHope Foundation, discusses the organization from his desk in his home office in Westbrook. (Staff photo by Joey Cresta)Stanley Cox of South Portland is just one of many unsung heroes who help make southern Maine a better place to live. Cox has been instrumental in saving farmland in the rapidly growing city, and recently he stepped forward to help a neighbor in need of support in a time of family crisis. (Courtesy photo)Despite a 22-year battle with multiple sclerosis, Mary Vandenburgh volunteers several days a week at the Windham Food Pantry. (Staff photo by John Balentine)

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