Maura Donovan, who manages the Traveling Tales program for Harpswell Aging at Home, sorts through books at the Bailey Island Union Church. Contributed photo via Harpswell Aging at Home

Marlene Ward is an avid reader.

But with the coronavirus pandemic keeping people from venturing too far from home, she has been relying on her daughter-in-law and niece to keep her supplied with reading material.

Now, a new program from Harpswell Aging at Home – Traveling Tales – will help boost Ward’s options and keep the Harpswell senior supplied with things to read.

“I told them how happy I was they were going to do it,” Ward said. “I can’t get enough books. I’m home alone most of the time and I have a book going all the time.”

She is a member of Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, but she has not been going out in the community much. When the opportunity came to have books delivered to her home by Harpswell Aging at Home volunteers every couple of weeks, Ward jumped at it.

“I let them know what I want – not by titles, but genre,” she said, adding that her books are delivered along with food that comes from HAH’s Meals in a Pinch program. “They (Harpswell Aging at Home) do so many things. I couldn’t live without them.”

Harpswell Aging at Home is a volunteer-run community organization that has created low- or no-cost initiatives to help Harpswell seniors age in place.

Traveling Tales runs through Harpswell Aging at Home’s Health and Wellness Committee. Chairperson Gayle Hays said after reading what other states are doing to reduce isolation and increase socialization for seniors and brainstorming with other HAH volunteers, the idea was born.

She enlisted Maura Donovan to manage the program and the call went out for donations of books, audiobooks, DVDs, puzzles and magazines.

“It was yes, yes and how much more can I give you,” Hays said of the response to the call for donations. “It was really overwhelming how many people have offered and brought things.”

Donovan has worked with the Harpswell Aging at Home’s Lunch with Friends program for several years, but the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to the weekly gatherings. In December, Hays approached her about working on the Traveling Tales program.

They developed a questionnaire and volunteers began connecting with seniors who participate in other HAH programs to find out what materials should be provided. Less than a month later, the first deliveries went out to Harpswell seniors.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s been a cool experience getting it going,” Donovan said. “It has given me an opportunity to meet a lot of seniors that I hadn’t met through Lunch with Friends.”

Hays said seniors get community contact by participating, both through phone conversations to get their requests and when items are dropped off at their homes.

“It keeps them engaged within the community,” Hays said, noting how important that is, especially with the coronavirus pandemic creating more isolation. “With COVID, it is so easy for people to stay in their own little world. This opens it up for them just a little bit.”

“We’re showing we are interested in what they are interested in,” said Donovan.

Traveling Tales is a program Donovan thinks could be replicated in other communities.

“In some of the larger towns, people have more access to libraries, which have more staff and facilities to do this,” she said, noting that Harpswell’s libraries are smaller and do not currently have the capacity to run such a program. “Also, all this stuff is donated, so if it doesn’t come back, it’s not an issue like with a library.”

Ward not only receives books from the program, she also has helped contribute materials for other seniors in the community.

“I wanted to help,” she said of her choice to donate reading material. “I was so pleased I wanted to help, so other people could have them.”

For people interested in donating to the program, Donovan said large print books are most needed, as well as audiobooks, puzzles with 500 pieces or fewer, nonfiction books and heavy-duty plastic bags.

The Willing Helpers, a Harpswell nonprofit group that maintains Bailey Island Union Church and cemetery, has made a temporary storage space at the church for the Traveling Tales items to be stored. Once the coronavirus pandemic subsides and gatherings can take place again, that space may no longer be available.

Hays said it is unclear whether Traveling Tales will continue post-COVID.

“If we had a place to store our resources, then we could continue it for people who are housebound,” she said. “Could it continue? Could we sustain it? Yes, but I don’t know where we would store the supplies.

“We don’t want to usurp the library,” Hays added. “This is really for people who would have difficulty getting to a library or homebound people.”

There are currently about a dozen Harpswell seniors participating in the program. For those who are not yet, they can call the Harpswell Town Office at (207) 833-5771 for more information on how to sign up.

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