Geneva Beals of Phippsburg was given the town’s Spirit of America award for her lifelong volunteer work for the town’s fire and rescue departments. Photo courtesy of the town of Phippsburg

Geneva Louise Beals received Phippsburg’s Spirit of America award earlier this month for her lifelong volunteer work for the town’s fire and rescue department.

Maine municipalities give one Spirit of America award each year to honor a local volunteer. Selectman Julia House said the select board usually presents the award during the annual town meeting, but Phippsburg selectmen gave Beals her award early due to her declining health.

Beals and her husband, “Bogie” Beals, started Phippsburg Rescue, the town’s ambulance service, in 1964 with nothing more than a stretcher mounted in their station wagon and a few suitcases full of bandages. The ambulance service was, and still is, free to anyone who needs it.

“I was always so proud that this was established, free of charge, to anyone who needed it,” said Allison Jacobs, Beals’ daughter.

At the time, the town had a “red” crank phone line for the fire and rescue service. The emergency line would ring in a few locations, one of which was Beals’ home. Geneva Beals would hold vigil, ready to answer any call for help, then dispatch fire and rescue crews wherever they were needed.

“When it started, we had red phones and she and her husband hardly left those red phones,” said Assistant Fire Chief Jim Totman, who worked alongside Beals for nearly 60 years. “Day in and day out, she wanted to be ready to answer a call. She’s a very nice lady and a hard worker.”

When she wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring, Beals was thinking of new ways to raise money for the rescue department. She organized dances, field days, and the occupational “donkey ball” basketball played while riding donkeys — to raise money. However, her most famous way, but simplest, way she raised money was by collecting empty bottles and cans, either by picking them up the side of the road or collecting bottle donations from residents.

“She has spent years collecting bottles to assist the fire and rescue departments,” said Selectman Mike Young. “Every day I’d see her at the recycling center at the town hall picking up bottles, but never asked for praise.

Though the town is uncertain exactly how much she has donated to the fire and rescue department using returnable bottles and cans, Selectman Julia House estimated Beals donated least $100,000, or over 2 million five-cent bottles and cans.

“Picking up bottles was a 30 to 40-year commitment, and it was a community effort,” said Jacobs. “My mother didn’t want to give it up. She came home from the hospital with a broken hip once and she wanted to go out and collect bottles. We joked that one day we’ll drive by the town office and see her feet sticking out of the recycling bin to get a bottle at the bottom.”

Jacobs said her mother was a private person who never looked for recognition for what she did to help her community, but she wouldn’t think twice before doing something to help someone “just because it was the right thing to do.”

“She’s barely five feet tall, but she has the spirit of a giant,” said Jacobs.

Beals’ work ethic and passion for helping others rubbed off on her family. Her children and two grandchildren all held positions or volunteered at their local fire and rescue departments.

Outside of her work for Phippsburg’s fire and rescue department, Beals founded the Elmhurst Center in Bath, a nonprofit social service agency that encourages increased independence for people with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.

“She has always been a big part of the community,” said House. “So many people in town know her and have been impacted by her.”

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