Bruce Bottiglierie

Photo by Gregory Rec

When Bruce Bottiglierie was growing up with a single mother in New Jersey, he sometimes had only canned corn to eat for dinner, he recalls. A monthly government shipment of a single Entenmann’s cake was the only sweet treat he looked forward to.

The 49-year-old Bottiglierie, who lives in Clinton, says his upbringing fuels his passion for operating the Winslow Community Cupboard food pantry.

Coincidentally, Bottiglierie got the pantry up and running just when it was needed, in late March when the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the region. He runs it with Anna Quatrucci, who does all the administrative work.

“Bruce had really wanted to launch the food pantry, and when he told me, it was actually before we knew how very, very serious the pandemic was and what the economic fallout would be,” said Dave Carew, who attends the Winslow Congregational Church, which houses the pantry. “It was very good timing in that sense because the need for the food pantry would just go through the roof.”

The pantry serves more than 130 families weekly and that number is growing. In October, Bottiglierie secured thousands of food boxes, weighing 25-30 pounds each, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Truck to Trunk and Food Emergency Assistance programs. The cupboard also partners with the Good Shepherd Food Bank and receives donations from the Hannaford supermarket in Waterville’s Elm Plaza.

Bottiglierie was an independent bread distributor until a blood clot disorder prevented him from working. His right leg was amputated five years ago.

The cupboard is open on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month from noon to 3 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. Keeping safe with coronavirus protocols is important to Bottiglierie and his group of about 25 volunteers who bring food to patrons’ cars. They also deliver to families and elderly residents who lack transportation.

“He has a huge heart, and he is just all about helping others,” Quatrucci said.

— By Greg Levinsky

Margaret Brownlee and Pedro Vazquez

Photo by Gregory Rec

The grassroots movement to form the first municipal human rights commission in Maine can be traced to a front porch in South Portland.

That’s where Margaret Brownlee and Pedro Vazquez decided to lead a community effort born out of anger and frustration after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May. Amid Black Lives Matter protests and calls to “defund” police, the two friends talked about how South Portland should respond and what they could do to help.

“At one point we just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Brownlee recalled.

Brownlee and Vazquez are now members of South Portland’s Human Rights Commission, which the City Council approved and funded in June with $25,000 that Chief Tim Sheehan culled from the police budget. City Manager Scott Morelli also contributed $5,000 from his annual raise. The commission, led by Vazquez, is expected to represent the interests of all residents, with a focus on marginalized populations. Its first project will be an equity audit of municipal departments and the city’s schools.

Both brought their personal and professional experiences to the movement.

Brownlee, 39, is a multiracial Maine native who is the diversity, equity and inclusion officer and learning support coordinator at the Maine College of Art. She and her wife, Morgan, have one child.

Vazquez, 50, was born in Puerto Rico of the indigenous Taino people and grew up in Florida. He is a federal court advocate for people who have disabilities. He and his wife, Lindsey, have six children.

Vazquez and Brownlee both have experienced or witnessed widespread systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, whether on the job, at community events or in the classroom.

“Margaret and Pedro really rose to the occasion with their experience, their drive and their empathy,” said City Councilor Deqa Dhalac, who proposed the permanent commission to her colleagues. “We are so lucky to have such amazing people who want to make a difference in our community.”

— By Kelley Bouchard

Susan Corbett

Photo courtesy of Susan Corbett

When Susan Corbett moved to Jonesport in 1998 and brought along her medical billing practice from Massachusetts, she knew that to keep her out-of-state clients happy, she’d have to shift most of her business online. But local internet providers were unable to offer her high-speed connections.

“I stomped my foot and said, ‘But they have wireless in Taipei!’ ” Corbett recalled.

She found Axiom, at the time a start-up focused on providing high-speed internet connections and headquartered in Machias. She soon became an executive with the company and, eventually, its chief executive officer.

But Corbett, 66, thinks Mainers must do more than simply connect to the internet; they need to know what to do once they get there. Axiom has created a nonprofit to provide adult education programs for Washington County residents, mostly focused on online learning.

“Our goal is get everyone comfortable with technology,” said Corbett, who now heads the National Digital Literacy Center that she founded. The center has dozens of computer tablets that connect to the internet via cellphones and are provided free to people 70 and older for up to 90 days.

Corbett said the coronavirus pandemic has her worried about the well-being of Maine’s large population of older residents. Restrictions on gatherings meant they have been cut off from family and friends – even going to see the doctor for normal checkups has been off limits.

Connecting to the web on tablets has helped with all those things, she said, and giving older residents the ability to connect to the internet has heartened her. “The joy of seeing someone connect by videoconference for the first time, it’s heartwarming to see that,” she said.

That kind of people-centered approach in dealing with technology is emblematic of Corbett, said Peggy Schaffer, the director of ConnectMaine, a state agency charged with making sure Mainers can connect online. A member of ConnectMaine’s board, Corbett is “very committed to making sure people in Maine have access to the internet, and that in her mind (it) is not just a wire,” Schaffer said.

— By Edward D. Murphy

Brian Diamond-Falk

Photo by Gregory Rec

Last year, Brian Diamond-Falk and his family welcomed four asylum seekers from the Republic of Congo into their North Deering home because they had nowhere else to go. After the Nzongo family found their own apartment in Portland, the Diamond-Falks stayed in touch, helping them navigate life in the United States.

When COVID-19 shut down public transportation last spring and Platini Nzongo, the father, could no longer use the city bus system, Diamond-Falk bought a used bike, repaired it and gave it to Nzongo for his birthday.

The gift gave Diamond-Falk another idea. Having worked as a bike mechanic during his college days in Chicago, the Southern Maine Community College culinary instructor decided to turn the family’s garage into an ad-hoc bike repair shop. Working with the Portland Facebook group Neighbors in Need, Diamond-Falk, 42, asked people to donate used bikes and matched them with others who needed bicycles but couldn’t afford them. By the end of September, he had given out nearly 75 bicycles.

 “It’s not really fair to ask someone in need to shoulder the cost of fixing a used bike. I worked as an intermediary,” he said.

Ephraisie Nzongo, speaking on behalf of her husband, said he hadn’t ridden a bike since he was a child, but in the past several months, it’s brought him joy and improved his health.

“It’s been a big help if the public transportation is not going. It’s also helpful moving around. Helping with his physical health,” she said.

As winter approaches, Diamond-Falk said, fewer people are cycling around Portland. But if the same need persists next spring, he plans to answer the call.

— By Deirdre Fleming

Cindy Gowell

Photo by Gregory Rec

When Cindy Gowell was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, she was told she had only a year to live. She’s spent the four years since then finding ways to give to others.

“I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself,” said Gowell, who is 56 and lives in Sabattus.

Every morning, she gets up, chooses the color yarn she wants to knit with and gets to work on a scarf or hat for someone in the community who needs it, all with her dog, Faith, a Shiba Inu, next to her.

Before the pandemic, she would slip a couple dollars in the hats and place them around her local park. Now, she donates them to the YWCA in Lewiston. “Her hats are beautiful,” said Jennifer Erwin of the YWCA.

Gowell’s latest project is making mats for people who are homeless to sleep on, by crocheting together plastic bags. She also loves cooking for her neighbors – lasagna, cookies and breads that she drops off to the families that live next door and her neighbor, who is recently widowed.

At the cancer center where Gowell receives treatment, Linda Taylor, who works as a financial adviser to patients, said she sees Gowell live her life selflessly, always putting others’ needs before her own.

“She just has the most positive attitude and doesn’t care what she’s going through unless she’s helping someone else,” Taylor said. “She should never leave this world quietly; people need to know that she’s there.”

— By Emily Duggan

Deb Kiker

Photo by Gregory Rec

Deb Kiker remembers meeting with a supervisor in Central Maine Medical Center’s human resources department last spring to talk about the coronavirus that was just starting to spread around the state and country.

“We’ll talk again in a couple of weeks, when this is all over,” the supervisor said.

They never had time for that talk. The outbreak rapidly grew into a pandemic that she must cope with on a daily basis. As the medical center’s system director of occupational health and wellness, she’s in charge of overseeing the well-being of about 3,000 employees – in effect, Kiker takes care of the people who take care of the community.

“My patients are the staff,” said Kiker, 62, who lives in Topsham with her husband.

Kiker is “talking us off the ledge when we get too worried about it,” said Erin Guay, executive director of Healthy Androscoggin, an offshoot of Central Maine Health Care. Guay said Kiker keeps track of the facts behind the coronavirus, has a calming personality and radiates a sense of personal caring while trying to make sure the virus doesn’t spread among the hospital staff, a critical factor during a pandemic.

“I work in public health, so I like how she’s always looking at the science,” Guay said. “And she’s also able to talk about your family – she’s just one of those approachable people.”

Kiker said she’s been contacted by Maine companies for advice on how to reduce the risk of infection among their employees, when it might be safe to reopen offices and how to do that. Kiker said it’s gratifying to share what she’s learned beyond the hospital.

“It allowed us to move that learning out into the community,” she said.

Kiker always has to think ahead as well, to issues such as how to distribute a vaccine when it becomes available.

“It’s constantly tweaking what we know,” she said.

— By Edward D. Murphy

Nancy Markowitz

Photo by Gregory Rec

Nancy Markowitz thinks the world would be a better place if everyone had a fairy godmother, somebody to help them when they really need it.

About five years ago, Markowitz began volunteering with Welcoming the Stranger, a grassroots group that matches people seeking asylum in Greater Portland with mentors. The mentors help the new Mainers with whatever obstacles they are facing as they try to adapt to their new lives, from learning English and getting a driver’s license to finding housing, furniture and warm winter clothes.

Putting her fairy godmother idea into practice, Markowitz, 71, has personally helped a half dozen families settle into new lives in Maine while they await rulings on their asylum cases. She’s helped find apartments, attended the birth of a child and acted as legal guardian for a minor from Burundi. Some of the people she’s mentored call her Mom.

“I’m so happy I’ve been able to add to their lives,” said Markowitz of Portland, who worked as a mediator and mediator trainer before retiring a few years ago. “They’ve added so much to my life, too.”

People who volunteer with Markowitz say that, besides mentoring individual families, she also works tirelessly to help the whole organization, which has more than 170 mentors helping well over 200 individuals or families.

“She’s always working on this program one way or another, answering a zillion emails and calls, going to meetings, delivering supplies, connecting people with social services,” said Paul Manoff of Westbrook, another volunteer mentor at Welcoming the Stranger. “She’s one of the most modest people I’ve ever met.”

Markowitz said she wanted to help asylum seekers because they lack access to some of the assistance and services given to refugees, who have been granted legal residence.

“They’ve been through so much just to get here,” said Markowitz. “Working with them has really been an education for me.”

— By Ray Routhier

Nicole Antonette Mokeme

Photo by Gregory Rec

Nicole Antonette Mokeme was planning on organizing a women’s retreat in 2014 when she learned about teenage girls who were engaging in self-harm and wanted to find a way to help. So instead, she organized a day at the beach, recruiting friends to teach dance and yoga, spend the day journaling and talk about empowerment and self-care.

“The feedback from the very first day was the students wanted to work together longer,” said Mokeme, 34.

Around the same time, Mokeme had gone camping for the first time and fell in love with it. So the next year, she started a weekend camping getaway for teens of color. They made body scrubs and toothpaste, journaled and held photo shoots.

“When we think of wellness or yoga, we usually think of white women. I wanted young Black women to see Black women, who are a little older than them, in this field and sharing wellness,” Mokeme said.

Mokeme since has founded Rise and Shine Youth Retreat, a farm and retreat center in Bowdoin offering cooperative living, outdoors programs, retreats and a plant share. The Philadelphia-area native grew up gardening and playing outside, but it wasn’t until she moved to Maine in 2008 that Mokeme said she really started to appreciate nature. Now, she tries to bring the same appreciation to others.

“This work provides the BIPOC community a place to gather, a place for fellowship,” said Mokeme, who lives in Bowdoin.

René Goddess, the founder of the Theater Ensemble of Color, where Mokeme has worked as a co-creator and performer, said her longtime friend has taught her how to listen to and support young people better. “She doesn’t design anything without them. I think that’s the power of her work. At the end of the day, she really does allow them to build their own strength,” Goddess said.

— By Rachel Ohm

Wayne Newell

Photo courtesy of Wayne Newell

The Passamaquoddy word “Sipayik” translates to English as “by the edge of the water,” which is where Wayne Newell grew up, on the easternmost border of the United States and Canada.

He had a harder time than other Passamaquoddy children learning the ways of hunting and fishing because his eyesight was poor enough to be considered legally blind. So instead, he turned to education.

Large-print books to help visually-impaired students had just arrived at a Catholic mission school on Pleasant Point, launching Newell’s lifelong educational adventure, a journey that would take him from rural Washington County to Boston and back again, always seeking to sustain and nurture his culture and native language.

“He basically said, ‘I can change my life through education,’ and ever since then, he has been setting the example that our youth can do the same,” said his son, Chris Newell, executive director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.

Now 78, Wayne Newell’s work continues with the upcoming publication of “Stories Our Grandmother Told Us,” tales that harken back to his youth, written in Passamaquoddy and English. “These books are kind of a microcosm of the work I’ve done in so many years,” he said. “What good is the language if the culture doesn’t go with it?”

A collaboration with a linguist from MIT, while he was earning a master’s degree in education from Harvard, eventually resulted in the publication of a Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary with over 18,000 entries. In the meantime, Newell returned to Maine as a health director, teacher and administrator in Indian Township, where he still lives with his wife of nearly 53 years, Sandra. He has served as a representative to the state Legislature, helped negotiate the 1980 Maine Land Claims Settlement Act and was appointed by Presidents Carter and Obama to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.

Author Susan Hand Shetterly called him a state treasure.

“Despite growing up poor, legally blind and on the receiving end of a brutal racism, he is a person who has generously given back what is valuable and good,” Shetterly said, “both to his people and to all of us in the state of Maine.”

— By Glenn Jordan

Sean and Emily Roche

Photo by Gregory Rec

Sean and Emily Roche knew they needed to do something. Businesses in Wells – always quick to donate to the schools and support local families in their times of need – were struggling as the coronavirus pandemic shut them down or kept customers away.

So they created Project Stimulus Wells, aiming to raise $12,000 to support and promote local businesses. In the end, they raised more than $40,000 and drew the community together during an uncertain and scary time.

The couple, who were married last month, grew up in Wells. Sean Roche, a 26-year-old accountant, serves on the Board of Selectman and Emily, 25, teaches first grade at the elementary school. They’re effusive about their love for the tight-knit community.

The Roches gathered 125 baskets created by 50 local businesses and used Facebook to draw attention to the raffle and a live auction, which took place in June. They used the money raised to buy $10 gift cards from each business that donated items, then handed them out to every school staff member, first responders and others in the community.

Business owners say they got an influx of revenue from the gift cards and additional money customers spent when they redeemed them.

The pandemic hit just as Casey Marsh, owner of Baked by CAM, reached her busiest time of year with graduations and weddings. The publicity she got from the stimulus project brought her enough customers to keep her busy even though events were being canceled.

While she and others were quick to praise the couple for their creativity and dedication to the community, the Roches don’t hesitate to give credit to everyone who took part. “It made us really proud of our community and how we all rallied together through a fun event,” Emily Roche said.

— By Gillian Graham

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