Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

Seated in a courtyard at Pinnacle Health and Rehab of North Berwick, Elli Wayne, left, Raymond Gagnon and Isabel Coleman listen to Gary Sredzienski play the accordion Sunday. Sredzienski plays for senior citizens at rehabilitation centers throughout southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Gary Sredzienski’s life is both unusual and purposeful.

He is a professional accordion player. Since 1990, the 58-year-old Kittery resident and one-time employee of the U.S. Forest Service has used the traditional, misunderstood and sometimes mocked instrument to support himself.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, a significant portion of Sredzienski’s income came from paid gigs at nursing homes and other long-term facilities, along with work as an in-school artist-in-residence, and payment and royalties off six film and 17 television music credits.

“It’s a hard walk being an accordion player,” said Sredzienski, who learned to play when he was 8. “I’ve always loved it. I’ve always worked with it and it just took over.”

“But when the virus came, everyone just came to a halt and especially me going to the elderly facilities,” Sredzienski said.

That’s when Sredzienski began to do mini-concerts from his living room, connecting via computer technology. He did these shows for free, connecting with residents he’d performed for in the past. When the restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people took hold, staff at the nursing homes would take the computer room-to-room.

“I would take their requests. So there’s a lady upstairs who loves ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ and you play that and make their day,” Sredzienski said. “Anybody from this crisis, they want me to play from my living room, I’m doing that for free, no problem.”

On Sunday, with warmer weather, Sredzienski was able to return Pinnacle Health and Rehab in North Berwick for the first time in weeks for an in-person, outdoor performance. Sredzienski said the staff at Pinnacle insisted on being billed for the show.

Katharine Rothaus, pinnacle’s activities director, said Sredzienski always goes beyond his contracted obligations.

“First of all, he’s completely engaging, the residents love him, just his upbeat, laughing personality, but he’s so talented,” Rothaus said.

Rothaus said that under normal circumstances, Sredzienski routinely visits with individual residents after the scheduled performance and often does a second set in the dining room.

“He may spend two, two-and-a-half hours where you’re paying him for an hour. He just has a comfort level with the residents,” Rothaus said.

In addition to live performances, Sredzienski has hosted the two-hour Polka Party radio show on college station WUNH in Durham, New Hampshire, for 33 years. Sredzienski is a UNH graduate.

He also has gained a reputation as a long-distance, cold-water swimmer who does one annual challenge for charity. In January 2008, he completed the 6-mile swim from Portsmouth to the Isles of Shoals.

“My life is a miracle, no question about it. I feel so freakin’ out of place, I’m not kidding you. I play accordion for a living in 2020. How is that even possible?” he said.

POTATOES ‘FROM HEAVEN’

Like other potato-producing regions around the globe, Aroostook County has a glut of unwanted spuds because of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdown of restaurants. About 65 percent of The County’s crop is annually processed into fries and chips for restaurant use. Now tons and tons of potatoes are sitting on pallets with no place to go.

Well, 30,000 pounds of hearty County potatoes found homes over the weekend thanks to the effort of John Hennessy, director of advocacy for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. Hennessy said he was aware of the potato market crash but a tip from a parishioner led to contact with the Maine Farmer’s Exchange in Presque Isle.

“We paid like 10 cents on the dollar and then they arranged for a shipping company to (drive) them south to us. It was a gift from heaven,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy said that as he was making arrangements he believed he was getting 3,000 pounds of potatoes.

“And I was stressing out about how to put that much to good use,” Hennessy said.

The next morning he looked at his notes and saw it was actually 30,000 pounds. That’s 15 tons. A few more calls got the job done. A single 2,000-pound pallet was dropped off en route at the Bangor Salvation Army.

Ten pallets (20,000 pounds) went to the Wayside Food Program in Portland, which helps supply food for 63 other agencies helping food insecure people.

“I’ve already sent 4,000 pounds to Harrison. There’s a large food pantry there that’s servicing about 500 families a week since this whole COVID thing started. They used to do about 250,” said Don Morrison, the operations manager at Wayside.

Another 4,000 pounds went to Preble Street Shelter and the final 4,000 pounds were kept for local churches to distribute to needy families in Portland.

“We got them Friday and they’re already distributed. It turns out I know how to get rid of some potatoes,” Hennessy said.

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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