The City of Biddeford recently named Holly Culloton as volunteer of the year with the Spirit of America Award. Courtesy Photo

BIDDEFORD — Creating beautiful spaces, creating community gardens where people can grow vegetables and flowers, and advocating for social justice keeps Holly Culloton busy. So, when Biddeford city officials were  looking to name a Volunteer of the Year as their Spirit of America Award winner, they immediately thought of her.

“I wish we had more people like her,” said Mayor Alan Casavant when he presented the award virtually at a recent City Council meeting. “She is essentially always here, doing something for someone,” he said.

Casavant spoke about Culloton’s nurture of the cities’ parks and gardens, beautifying the downtown, her work on social justice issues, “and being present whenever you are needed.”

“Thank you for many years of improving the quality of life in our community,” said Casavant. “You are the city’s angel of goodwill.”

Culloton has been a part of the wider Biddeford and Saco community since she was a teen —and even though her military family moved frequently, living in various parts of the country and the world, the area is home.

She became involved with Heart of Biddeford, serving on its board and a term as board president a few years after opening a restaurant, Bebe’s Burritos, with her brother back in 2001. She later sold the business and owned a shop called Lacava  on Water Street with two friends for several years.

While all that was going on, in 2012 Culloton and others formed the Adopt a Park program.

“This was a way to bring volunteers into the care of our city green spaces to help the Public Works Department,” said Culloton, pointing out there wasn’t a lot of money in the city’s budget for upkeep other than mowing and the like.

Then came the community gardens, starting with eight raised beds at Williams Court and later, a public garden; a children’s garden at Piersons Lane; and the 40-bed community garden at Mission Hill.

In the coming year, she’ll be a volunteer with the Vista program, focusing on sustaining the community gardens and making preliminary plans for a community garden at Rotary Park.

Earlier this year, Culloton and HOB Executive Director Delilah Poupore joined with friend Sandra Katz and organized a gathering in Mechanics Park following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, allegedly at the hand of four police officers, who face charges in connection with his death. The response was greater than they had expected — between 200 and 250 people showed up. They later formed the Biddeford Saco chapter of SURG — Showing Up for Racial Justice. Its mission is to implement change and dismantle systemic racism in the community and in the state, said Culloton.

The group hosted a voter registration drive, aimed at new Americans, outside Biddeford City Hall in October.

These days, Culloton and her partner, John Collins, have become involved with Maine Meal Assistance, where volunteers cook a meal once a week for others who need it.

“We thought this was so cool,” said Culloton, pointing out that if you’re cooking for your family anyway, another meal or two is possible and affordable. She said those who want to help can check the Maine Meal Assistance Facebook page.

She said receiving the Spirit of America Award was a nice surprise.

“I think it’s in my blood to volunteer,” said Culloton. “I find real pleasure in volunteering in my community. ”

She recalled her days as a child, when the family was living in England while her father was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force. He’d invite half  a dozen GI’s who were away from home and family to their home for a big dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“That stuck with me … and had an effect on me in my adult life,” she said.

Culloton was among those recognized across the county with Spirit of America awards. York County commissioners, in non-pandemic times, host a reception annually, but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they instead read recipient’s names at a commissioner’s meeting as a way to recognize the volunteers.

In County Commissioner District 1, those recognized included Paul and Pat Boisvert of Berwick; Merle Googins of Cornish; the late Nancy Wyman and the late Ronal Parch, both of Lebanon; Cindy Smith of Limerick; Bruce Rozett of Limington; Joseph Iannazzo and Richard King, both of Newfield; and Brendan “Dan” Boyle of South Berwick.

In County Commission District 2, Culloton was the recipient in Biddeford; and the late Stuart Barwise in Kennebunkport.

County Commission District 3 winners were Theodore Poirier of Dayton; and Demi Kulacz, Holly Korda and Stephanie Moutsatos, all of Old Orchard Beach.

County Commission District 4 winners were Rodney Hammond of Lyman; and Massabesic Lions Club of Waterboro.

In County Commission District 5 winners were John Murphy and James Tessier, both of Eliot, Kittery Lions Club; and the Father William Kelley Knights of Columbus Council 9782 in Wells.

The tributes originated with the Spirit of America Foundation, established in Augusta in 1990 to honor volunteerism.

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