Since last March, we’ve seen how the global pandemic has impacted not just our country as a whole, but our neighbors right down the street.

While there has been direct economic fallout attributed squarely on the pandemic, it also highlighted the long term, systemic needs in our community that have been there all along.

It’s easy, if you don’t see the need every day yourself within your own household or family, to have an out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality. Having grown up with a single a mom relying on various assistance programs, it’s something that’s hits close to home. In fact, I still have one of the ‘food coupons’ or food stamps as a reminder of where I came from and how easy it is to fall behind no matter who you are or where you come from.

When volunteering throughout the past year, putting USDA boxes of free food into people’s cars, you should have seen the lineup. At the Saco Elks Club, the line went for miles all the way down to the Halfway intersection in Old Orchard Beach. We had to have police help navigate because there was so much traffic caused by an event giving away free food. One of the city’s drones caught an image that will forever be etched in my memory of the cars lined up for just a few free core staples like milk and produce. While it’s great we have programs like this, coordinated by local groups, to fill in the gaps, it breaks my heart see so much need in our own backyard.

Even when we were scooping and handing out weekly hot meals to seniors with Saco Parks & Rec, there were a number of folks who said that this was a true blessing. One lady told me this one meal went a long way to helping supplement what she needs in a week. That one meal. But this isn’t new. The need has been there all along, even if it was exacerbated because of the public health crisis. I also heard from so many seniors, house or apartment bound, who couldn’t leave the house and needed essentials and assistance.

Did you know there is a significant portion of students who attend Thornton Academy that require food assistance? At a cost of over $300,000 per year, my Alma Mater provides free breakfast and lunch to hundreds of food insecure students through the Headmaster’s Student Assistance Fund. Unlike fully public schools, this is not subsidized, instead they collect donations to fund it. There are enough students who are food insecure that they have a stuff-the-backpack program, providing food to the students and their families to supplement what they have at home each weekend.

But what can we do to help? Turns out, a lot.

The Saco Food Pantry always needs volunteers whether that’s driving a package of food to someone’s doorstep or helping to arrange food in the building, there is something for everyone to do. Old Orchard Beach has a few food pantries, so be sure to check out their needs, from food donations or helping distribute. So many local churches also step up as well and have their own ways of lifting up our most vulnerable.

Age Friendly Saco and OOB Community Friendly Connection are two groups committed to helping individuals age comfortably in place. Anything from providing sand buckets for driveways in the winter to providing a list of valuable resources and the latest town information, they brainstorm creative solutions and turn it into action. Throughout the pandemic, both groups helped call seniors to check in on them through phone trees and helped coordinate further food drops to senior complexes and homes. If you are looking for a group of movers and shakers, these groups would be it.

Longtime volunteer organizations like Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis, do good work in our area year-round. I have always found with my own Rotary club for instance, that folks are always willing to pitch in and lend a hand whenever and wherever is needed. A true embodiment of our slogan ‘Service Above Self’.

Of course, this is not an extensive list. Unlike other places in Maine, we don’t have a shortage of organizations and groups making a difference. I’m grateful for that. It’s a testament to the commitment of our community to help one another, but also a demonstration of the need that is out there.

I look around and see people needing a hand up in order to live happy, healthy, and successful lives. Let us remember the amount of food insecurity, housing burden, and mobility issues we’ve seen throughout the pandemic isn’t something that just goes away. It will be around long after the pandemic subsides. It’s our responsibility as good stewards in this life to step up and lift up as many people as we can and are able to. It’s a philosophy I have always tried to live by, and I know we are up for the task.

Justin Chenette is the former state senator for the Saco-OOB area. He is currently a scholarship program director, mayoral appointee on the Saco Long-Range Planning Committee, member of the Saco Main Street Board of Directors, and author of the children’s book ‘The Great Whoopie Pie Debate’. Learn more at www.justinchenette.com.

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