Leadership is so much more than the votes you take at the State House in Augusta. It’s also about the work you put in helping your fellow neighbors right here in our own community.

I’ve always believed that elected leaders and those seeking office, should be involved in the communities they are seeking to serve. When you are present in your neighborhood, when you volunteer at an event, or start a project to help others, you are not only more accessible to people, but you tend to understand the needs of the area better. You need to be here, talking with your constituents, being held accountable and showcasing your values through action.

That’s why I have made my nonprofit and volunteer work front and center to my public service career.

As a member of Saco’s 250th organizing committee, I got the chance to help plan and execute some of the largest celebrations of history in our city from a parade to square dancing.

I was a founding organizer of Saco Bikes for Kids, an initiative we pulled together to encourage Saco students to get outside and use our amazing local trail system. Over the course of a year, we fundraised for and provided over 25 bikes and equipment to Saco Parks & Rec for use in their afterschool and summer programs.

Through the creation of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement, I led an effort to advance arts education, connect veterans to job training, help students afford college, and increase volunteerism. As someone who benefited from the arts, giving back to our area schools through arts grants was personal. C.K. Burns School in Saco used the grant money to fund a variety of ethnic instruments and doubled their strings budget. Loranger Memorial in OOB, started a ukulele program and Saint James in Biddeford purchased a variety of band instruments for students most in need. Saco Middle School used the grant we provided to make improvements to its performance arts space. At Old Orchard Beach High School, arts teachers put their students through a cultural immersion experience by drawing and painting a mural map of the world in one of their hallways. Through OOB-Saco Adult Education, veterans were able to take advantage of free courses to advance their careers and get back into the job market. Overall, in a 5-year span, my organization raised and invested well over $10,000 into our area. I continue this work through my nonprofit scholarship fund, providing college scholarships to area high school students at Thornton Academy and Old Orchard Beach High School. Since 2015, I‘ve provided over $5,000 worth of scholarships to Maine’s future leaders with donations from our community.

As a Saco Bay Rotarian, I’ve volunteered with a number of events including the annual Parkinson’s Ride Lobster Bake, Saco Bike Rodeo, Duck Pluck Fundraiser, working the phones at the TV auction, and more.

As a board member for six years, including a stint as president and currently vice president, of Saco Main Street, I’ve had a front row seat to the incredible work of Rob Biggs, Holly Gordon, and all of our volunteers that assist with promoting and supporting our downtown businesses along with helping to attract new ones. In this role, I’ve enjoyed being a part of a team effort to organize our large-scale events that we all enjoyed pre-pandemic.

This past summer, I spent 13 weeks helping dish out over 3,000 free hot meals to Saco seniors with the Saco Parks & Rec team. Most recently, I assisted with the free food box distribution program with Age Friendly Saco and OOB Community Friendly Connection in Saco and OOB, giving out thousands of boxes of free food from the USDA.

This is all aside from the countless events attended to support our area nonprofits and groups from Scout pancake breakfasts to church bean suppers and everything in between. We are truly blessed to live here and be around people who genuinely care for one another.

Going forward, my commitment to service isn’t beholden to a leadership position or title. It was never because of my legislative position. Volunteering is a part of who I am, part of my identity. Much like my Rotary Club has the mantra of ‘Service Above Self’, I believe service is a lifestyle. There is something special about making a difference in the lives of those around you. It lifts you up, gives you a sense of purpose, and provides your soul with fulfillment.

On professional note: After eight years of writing for this newspaper on a bi-weekly basis, this will be my last regular column. It’s been great having a way to connect with you through this medium. I’ve always believed transparency is the best disinfectant and hopefully my columns have provided you a glimpse into the inner working of the Legislature, an exchange of ideas about the important issues facing our state, and highlighted the incredible community work happening in our own backyard. Thank you again for entrusting me with the honor of representing our area in the Senate.

Justin Chenette is the outgoing state senator for the Saco-OOB area, president of the Maine Democracy Project, vice president of Saco Main Street, and author of ‘The Great Whoopie Pie Debate: A Kids’ Guide to the Maine Legislature.” Follow his future updates at www.JustinChenette.com and on social media.

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