A month and a half before the pandemic hit Maine, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted its Imagine Portland awards night at Thompson’s Point with 920 people shaking hands, hugging, sharing hors d’oeuvres and posing for photos. It was the largest event in the chamber’s history, and business was booming.

No one would have imagined then that the next iteration of this typically annual event would be a 45-minute noontime video presentation 16 months later, on June 9. Or that that presentation could be so emotionally uplifting. But, with heartfelt interviews and high-quality video production by O’Maine Studios, it was. (See “Imagine Portland 2021” on YouTube.)

“This year seemed to start where 2020 left off, with economic suffering, continued racial divides and political unrest,” says Quincy Hentzel, the chamber’s chief executive officer. “But there exists an important human element: hope. Hope for the distribution of vaccines. Hope for PPP loans and other federal and state aid. Hope as demonstrated by activists and local leaders willing to find common ground for reaching shared goals.”

“The chamber has been more than just a convener of our greater community during these challenging times,” says Michael Bourque, president of MEMIC. “It has been an advocate for a strong workforce, a stable approach to public policy and an intentional platform for the way we want our region to be and to behave.”

Fittingly, the 2021 Imagine Portland awards honored changemakers in the areas of social responsibility, business adaptability, community partnership, creative entrepreneurship and tireless advocacy.

The 2021 Catalyst Award went to Rivalries sports bar, which pivoted swiftly with an online ordering platform and delivery services. “And then we began reaching out to the community and to businesses to see if they wanted to collaborate with us and feed the front lines,” says co-owner Lance Meader. “We were able to feed 5,000 different frontline workers.”

“When there is a time of need, especially a pandemic, which none of us had experienced before, there is that coming together,” says co-owner Amy Meader.

That same spirit of collaboration was shown by the recipient of the 2021 Creator Award, Cooking for Community. This grassroots all-volunteer organization born out of the pandemic-related restaurant closures raised over $1 million and produced and distributed 100,000 meals during the pandemic.

Co-founder Caroline Teschke says, “What do restaurants do? They make food. And what do people need right now? They need food. And we’ve come together and created this organization called Cooking for Community.”

cPort Credit Union was recognized with a Champion Award for providing financial literacy resources and programs for Maine’s immigrants and refugees and promoting diversity and inclusion within their own recruiting and retention efforts.

“This is a wonderful, vibrant community … and it has become richer because of diversity,” says Gene Ardito, president and chief operating officer. “We really are focused on becoming inclusive.”

“I think the pandemic really showed all of us what we can do in community and how we can support each other,” says Liz Cotter Schlax, president and chief operating officer of United Way of Greater Portland, which received the 2021 Collaborator Award.

“I think the community became much more aware of the important role that everyone can play in making this a great place for all of us,” she says. “We all became aware of the financial challenges, health care challenges, education challenges going on in our community and started to understand what we can do about it as individuals and as a community.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough who is now back to covering in-person events. She can be reached at [email protected]

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