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Every year, we ask you to tell us about people in your community who go out of their way to give of themselves for the benefit of others. This year's 10 Mainers To Be Thankful For are activists and advocates, coaches, caring neighbors, leaders and spirit-lifters. Here are their stories. Photos by staff photographer Gregory Rec.
When Mike Barter graduated from Deering High School and was contemplating a career, he knew he wanted to help others.
He became a Portland police officer, a paramedic and a Gray firefighter, providing assistance in the form of simple acts to saving lives.
But even when not working, wherever he’s lived – Windham, Florida and now Peaks Island – he steps in and helps, according to those who say they’re lucky to have him around.
When Jessica Bowden lived in Windham, and was fighting cancer and couldn’t work, “Mike plowed my driveway for free,” said Bowden, now a Standish resident. Barter and his wife, Ann Marie, delivered meals. “He even paid for heating oil when I was unable to afford it,” Bowden said. “He doesn’t think twice about helping those who may need it.”
Barter, 66 and now retired, finds all sorts of ways to volunteer his time, from playing Santa Claus, to teaching CPR classes for schools and organizations, to serving as a guardian on an Honor Flight of Maine, escorting a World War II veteran to Washington, D.C.
Most recently, Barter returned to his former Florida community of Little Gasparilla Island after it was ravaged by Hurricane Ian. He spent days in the heat clearing fallen trees, rebuilding docks, conducting wellness checks, going on medical and fire calls, and hauling out debris from destroyed homes.
He’s the kind of person you’d want for a neighbor, said Bill Underhill, the fire chief on Little Gasparilla Island. “There is not a more helpful guy than Mike, especially with his law enforcement, fire and EMS experience.”
Susan Hanley, president of the Fifth Maine Museum on Peaks Island, said Barter always shows up to volunteer, flipping pancakes or grilling burgers for fundraisers. He also provides emotional support.
“He’s just a happy, cheerful person who brings a smile,” Hanley said. “When you are working with Mike, you’re laughing.”
— BONNIE WASHUK
Corley Byras is long past retirement age but still working 60 hours a week – at the Androscoggin Hospice Thrift Store and the lending library she started at her local church, for the fraternal organization Eastern Star, whose newsletter she’s written for over two decades, and as a member of the state’s retired educator association. Not that she’s getting paid for any of it.
“I was brought up to do volunteer work, and I thoroughly enjoy it,” said the 82-year-old Augusta resident.
Byras says she functions on seven hours of sleep, and because her children are long grown and her husband died from colon cancer in 2007, she has plenty of time for volunteering.
Originally from Ohio, Byras traveled with her husband while he was enlisted in the Air Force before settling in Maine in the late 1970s. (She was named “enlisted military wife of the year” for her volunteerism while stationed at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.)
Linda Williams, who works with Byras at the Augusta thrift store, said she was instrumental in getting the store off the ground and becoming a “thriving entity” since it opened this year.
“She is a treasure and most deserving of recognition,” said Williams.
And when the store had trouble selling some books, Byras donated them, along with a bookshelf, to her local church, instead of letting them go into recycling or a landfill – an example, Williams said, of Byras’ inclination to always be charitable.
Dianna Pinkham, who volunteers with Byras at the store, said she is a natural leader.
“She has a purpose, and her purpose is giving,” said Pinkham, “whether it’s here or time donated at other places, and I think that flows over to everybody who works along with her.”
— CHRIS BOUCHARD
Molly Curren Rowles became executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine five years ago, just as the organization opened sprawling new headquarters in Portland.
A former staff lawyer with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, she was tasked with expanding the JCA’s programs and community impact, which was challenging enough. She had no inkling of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the influx of asylum seekers and refugees, or the family illness that would force her to work from remote hospital rooms.
Still, under her leadership, the alliance has grown its child care and educational programs, including interfaith religious events, increased advocacy to combat antisemitism and a regular podcast highlighting Jewish community leaders, which she hosts. It developed an essentials pantry for people who need household and personal items, and launched a diaper bank that has distributed 1.2 million diapers since January 2020.
Curren Rowles also re-established a refugee resettlement program that welcomed 97 Afghan evacuees to Maine this year, and she pushed fundraising for JCA programs to nearly $1.5 million annually.
“Molly has been unbelievably amazing through it all,” said Stuart Piltch, president of the alliance’s board. “And not because it’s her job. It’s what she truly believes in.”
Curren Rowles, 43, of Portland, and her husband, Dustin, learned in March 2021 that their son, Declan, then 13, had acute myeloid leukemia. Intensive chemotherapy severely compromised his immune system and required almost constant hospitalization.
“He lived at Maine Med for most of the next six months,” she said. That August through September, he was at Boston Children’s Hospital for a bone marrow transplant. His younger sister Hattie was the donor and her identical twin, Lila, was by his side for the procedure.
Declan is in remission now, and Curren Rowles is busier than ever. The JCA’s refugee resettlement program, an HIAS affiliate, has expanded to assist immigrants from Africa, Ukraine and the Middle East. The work breathes new life into the Jewish tradition to “welcome the stranger.”
“We used to resettle people because they were Jewish,” Curren Rowles said. “Today, we welcome newcomers because we are Jewish.”
— KELLEY BOUCHARD
Tyrone Daniels has a reputation for doing anything to get kids out on the field.
The president of the Portland Area Youth Soccer Association not only runs the league, but often can be found drawing lines on the field and inflating balls for games.
“If it weren’t for him, there’d be hundreds, if not thousands of kids not able to play the sports that they’re playing,” said Emily Lesher, a member of the association’s board. “He’s just literally spending all of his time outside of work getting kids involved.”
Daniels, 45, in his job as a cafeteria worker at East End Community School, heard this fall from several children of new Mainers who had missed soccer signups, because their parents speak little or no English.
So he organized and coached a separate team for 11 of those kids. He’s hoping to get them involved with basketball and the indoor soccer-like game futsal this winter.
“They need the confidence, they need to stay busy,” said Daniels, who lives in Portland. “They get to play soccer, which they love, and it’s been translating into their school behaviors. That was my goal with that team.”
Daniels, a 1996 Deering grad and former track athlete, is also an assistant track and field coach at Portland High. Oliver Hettenbach, a senior distance runner on the track team, said Daniels helped him acclimate when he joined the team as a sophomore.
“He was very welcoming and very kind,” Hettenbach said. “He’s friendly to everyone, very inclusive. He makes sure everyone feels listened to.”
Daniels likes to make sure whoever wants to play gets a chance.
“I’m in a really good position to be able to make change through sports,” Daniels said. “I feel like my best fit to be able to help the community and make change is through coaching.”‘
— DREW BONIFANT
Lihua Lei has always drawn inspiration – and sought answers – from the natural world.
Lei, 56, grew up the daughter of rice farmers in rural Taiwan, crafting her first art pieces (her own toys) from the muddy earth beneath her.
Her childhood was also marked by disease: Lei had polio. Growing up a disabled woman, Lei said, meant she was constantly grappling with bodily beauty standards – wondering if she fell short of femininity, and whether she could ever “fit in.”
These questions endured as Lei emerged as an artist. With a background in art therapy, and a strong belief that she could connect to others’ suffering with her work, Lei came to Maine in 1998 for a summer residency at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture. She settled, for good, in Solon.
Since then, Lei has created a score of public art installations around Maine – usually at colleges and universities, like Colby, University of New England and University of Maine at Augusta – for free. And though her work has had a good deal of art-world success in Washington, D.C., and New York, Lei is most fulfilled when she gets positive feedback from real people in her own community.
Lei creates her exhibits with a question, or an issue in mind, like global warming, disability or disease. She then finds a “space” in the natural world, and uses organic materials to create an artful place for stillness and public reflection.
For Colby’s Art Museum, she carved breasts into a circle of trees and invited a support group for breast cancer survivors to participate in a cathartic, on-site performance piece. This year, for her latest exhibit, “Offering,” residents of Solon helped her make casts of the iconic boulders outside the Skowhegan School’s lecture hall, and set them out on a lake on campus. The delicate, biodegradable structures melted slowly into the lake over time to symbolize global warming.
Sarah Workneh, co-director of the Skowhegan School, said having artists like Lei living and creating art in rural areas helps keep creative engagement accessible outside mainstream art centers.
“It’s not necessarily always the loudest work,” said Workneh. “But it’s really important work.”
— ZARA NORMAN
While running a cat rescue out of her East Waterboro home, Nadine Molloy found that a primary reason for surrendering pets was an inability to pay for their food.
So in 2015, the retired animal control officer converted her garage into a pet food pantry.
“I was running into elderly people who were skipping their medications to feed their pet or they were going without food to feed their pet,” said Molloy, 58.
Now, No Bowl Empty 2 Pet Food Pantry every month feeds more than 2,000 dogs and cats as well as a few ferrets, guinea pigs and other animals.
The nonprofit operates through the volunteer work of Molloy and donations, mostly of food and kitty litter. The pantry also supplies toys, treats, carriers, grooming supplies, harnesses and collars.
Molloy knows keeping pets in their owners’ homes is important for the mental and physical health of both the animals and their humans.
“Pets are therapeutic for people,” said Molloy, especially for those with mental illness. “Their pets are kind of what holds them together.”
For Molloy, the best part of running the pantry is hearing the sigh of relief from pet owners.
“You have people that come to you, and they’re nervous about coming in the first place,” said Molloy.
Biddeford resident Holly Boudreau was one of those people. She contacted Molloy a year ago when she needed help to feed her three cats, which she considers family members.
“She helped me to not feel embarrassed,” Boudreau said.
Molloy says her priority is running a judgment-free pantry.
“If you ask for help, you get help,” she said.
— AIMSEL PONTI
Growing up in Falmouth and attending a high school where there weren’t any students who looked like her, Alfine Nathalie felt isolated and alone.
She would hold back her thoughts and feelings at school, waiting to unload her emotions on family when she got home.
Nathalie, who was born in Kenya, didn’t have any outlets for coping or connecting with other young people of color. So as an adult, she’s tried to provide that for other women and girls.
“It’s just needed, especially in a state like Maine,” said Nathalie, 32, of Falmouth. “It’s so helpful and reassuring to see someone who looks like you or someone you have a shared experience with sitting across from you at the table and asking if you’re taking care of yourself.”
Now a holistic health coach, Nathalie runs Club Safari, through which she hosts events and retreats for people of color to learn more about wellness and explore the outdoors. “I’ve spent a lot of time studying health and wellness, and everything points in one direction: outside,” Nathalie said.
She credits her friend Nicole Mokeme, who founded a retreat for young people of color in Bowdoin, with helping her get into wellness and connect with youth. Following Mokeme’s death in a hit-and-run last summer, Nathalie and other friends and family of hers started Journey Onederland, an organization dedicated to carrying on Mokeme’s work.
“She’s always been someone giving to the community rather than just receiving,” said Jared Cash, president and CEO of the Mitchell Institute, which named Nathalie to their Mitchell Scholar scholarship program in 2008.
Recently, Cash said Nathalie provided a wellness talk for scholars in the program during a leadership weekend at the New England Outdoor Center. “She’s always had a style to her that’s about serving a higher purpose,” Cash said. “It’s been nice to see how she’s grown in her post-student days to provide that service for other students.”
— RACHEL OHM
In the 1990s, Clara Porter was a young social worker in Brooklyn increasingly disillusioned by what she describes as the “power dynamics” of her field, when, on a whim, she signed up for a karate class. It would change the direction of her life.
She studied, trained to teach, then apprenticed – all in something that she would eventually come to know as “empowerment self-defense.” Instead of the top-down solutions she encountered in social work, “what really resonated with me was how equal we all are, how we all come into this being expert in our own lives,” Porter said.
That collaborative idea – that students are as knowledgeable as instructors – firmly underpins her own organization, Prevention Action Change, which has been working with Mainers since 2003, especially traditional victims of verbal harassment and physical abuse or assault (such as women, and recently Passamaquoddy women in particular, as well as other people of color and LGBTQ Mainers).
The organization’s nine teachers, including Porter, work to help people learn safety strategies (verbal and physical) and ways to set limits, express needs and heal. Based in Portland, Prevention Action Change offered some 70 workshops this year to the public, as well as at schools and workplaces (recently, for frontline workers in hospital and hospitality settings), reaching more than 900 people. All public classes are on a sliding fee scale, “including zero,” Porter said.
Colleagues and friends describe Porter, 57, of Portland, in glowing terms: patient, compassionate, present, humble and both a constant learner and a good listener.
Kimberly Simmons, who teaches women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine and has helped organize women’s marches with Porter, said Porter “improves every group she works with. From volunteering on the board of the Maine Women’s Fund to helping to form (a new racial justice group) in Portland, Clara provides a unique force for making things better for our whole community.”
— PEGGY GRODINSKY
Freeport resident Robert Stevens works tirelessly to slow global warming, not because he believes it will make a difference in his lifetime, but because it will for future generations.
Since retiring from a Portland law firm in January, the 84-year-old has devoted much of his spare time and energy working for environmental causes that he believes will ensure that his children and his grandchildren, long after he is gone, have a good quality of life.
In the summer of 2021, Stevens and his wife, Kathleen Sullivan, helped co-found Freeport Climate Action Now, a nonprofit organization whose members were concerned about global warming’s existential threat to mankind.
Chalmers Hardenberg, who serves on the steering committee of Freeport CAN, said that Stevens does a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed but that enables organizations such as Freeport CAN and the Freeport Conservation Trust to carry out their missions.
Stevens was instrumental in starting the first farmers market in Freeport in 2022, viewing it as a way to encourage the community to decrease its impact on climate change by buying more products from local farms and businesses.
A former town councilor, Stevens has encouraged town leaders to provide rebates to residents who weatherize their homes and install heat pumps, to install more electric vehicle charging stations and to explore installing a community solar project at the town’s capped landfill site.
Climate change is already here, and Stevens tries to be realistic about what the world can do to mitigate its effects.
“Humans are only one part of the equation. But, we’re the part that has the ability to effect change,” he said. “No, I don’t think we can stop it. We can only try to slow it down.”
— DENNIS HOEY
Rich Tucker was just a few years out of high school when he lost much of his eyesight. After ulcers and several surgeries, he was left completely blind in one eye and with impaired vision in the other.
He lost his job as a welder and was feeling pretty sorry for himself. Then he met with a counselor at Portland’s Iris Network, to help him adjust to life with severely impaired sight. The counselor, who was blind, was compassionate but basically told Tucker “to get over it.”
“He told me that there was nothing wrong with my life, and he was going to help me move on,” said Tucker, 49, of Windham. “That meant so much to me, and I feel like it’s really important for me now to pay that forward.”
Tucker has been doing that for more than 20 years, helping people who’ve been homeless. He’s currently an overnight supervisor for three Portland apartment buildings – run by the social service agency Preble Street – that provide permanent housing for people who’ve been chronically homeless, including some who have struggled with addiction and their mental health.
To take the focus off the myriad challenges keeping residents up at night, Tucker might throw an impromptu dance party for residents, or pick out a movie to watch. He’s organized chili contests, trips to see auto races and craft-making sessions. He says having fun or joking around are ways he can build trust and relationships with the people he’s trying to help.
“He has a great sense of humor and often tries to lighten the mood for people,” said Alison Cameron, who worked with Tucker on staff at Preble Street’s Logan Place for seven years. “What these people have gone through can be very sobering and overwhelming.”
— RAY ROUTHIER
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