'You build community, but the community also builds you': The first cadre of Main Street Fellows AmeriCorps members reflect on helping Maine’s towns and cities flourish

Author:
Nathan McIvor and Bryan Roche

Decorative collage featuring portraits of six individualsThe following blog post is part of our Serve In Maine blog series, where we at Volunteer Maine put a spotlight on AmeriCorps service members to highlight how they use their skills to step up for Maine communities.

Perri Williams did not anticipate just how much Gardiner, Maine would change her for the better.

“My work filled me up; I am no longer zombie-walking through life,” she said.

Williams is one of the six Main Street Fellows AmeriCorps members who reflected on a year of service during the first-ever Main Street Fellows AmeriCorps Program showcase on July 14, 2021. In a TED Talk-style event, each of the six fellows discussed their respective service through the lens of personal reflection. United States Senators Susan Collins and Angus King opened the event with words of appreciation for the AmeriCorps members.

A West Virginia native, Williams was eager to serve Gardiner when she started last summer, and now has a close connection to the community. She worked on the Downtown Master Planning process, in which the community plans the policy, economic and community goals for the next decade. She knows the plan will “give people the same sense of ownership in their community that has allowed me to build a life here.”

 “The downtown storefronts are full, and it’s really exciting to watch my community change with the seasons … there are events happening every day,” she said. Williams' favorite bakery in downtown Gardiner “has my order waiting for me every Thursday morning,” and she will miss friends that she has made during her service.

Williams graduated from West Virginia University’s Master of Public Administration program before her service tour with Main Street Fellows AmeriCorps program, and enjoys community development and outreach.

The Fellows served Biddeford, Gardiner, Rockland, and Skowhegan, as well as several other Maine Downtown Center member communities with 8,500 hours of collective effort from October 2020 through August 2021. The Fellows are the inaugural members of Maine Development Foundation’s new AmeriCorps program that helps Maine’s communities continue building resilience. A central focus of their service is on increasing social capital, fostering more welcoming and equitable communities, and sharing new mindsets and models needed for communities to thrive.

Sam Perry, Biddeford’s Main Street Fellow, spent his service year figuring out creative ways to engage community needs. He created drive-in holiday themed events for the city “where families can drive through and look at Halloween decorations or reindeer” to keep the community engaged and compassionate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perry believes the internet works wonders for community involvement. He likes the idea of community events that stem from frequent online engagement, as “you can constantly foster community” despite the unpredictable shifts brought on by the pandemic.  He also set up socially distanced scavenger hunts for Biddeford.

Perry liked that “people started talking to us on the street” about the engaging programs he was helping with, and that he always thinks about how he can engage with his audience every day when he is helping out the community.

Perry currently studies at University of Southern Maine’s M.A. program in Leadership Studies.

Eliot List, one of the two fellows serving Skowhegan, opened up the program with a thoughtful talk on inclusivity. He discussed the perception that those without deep Maine roots, commonly known as people "from away," could not truly understand the state. Observing that this belief leads to a rejection of outside ideas, List recommended that the audience take a more inclusive stance on what it means to be a "Mainer."

"Being a Mainer is embodying a sense of ideals that comes from time spent in the state with its people," said List.

Nick Adams reflected on his personal journey, likening it to the resilient nature of the Skowhegan community he serves. When growing up, Adams shared he was viewed as "lazy" and "not motivated." His drive to prove otherwise is comparable to the fight shown by those who make up the small rural community that used to be an epicenter of Maine's once-booming pulp and textile industries.

"They bet on the town. They believe in it," reflected Adams on Skowhegan's "welcoming" community. "I challenge you...to focus on the people who want to make a difference, surround them with support, work hard, never quit, and bet on yourself and bet on the town."

Nat Blackford, who serves at the Maine Downtown Center in Hallowell, challenged the audience to hone the power of imagination when thinking about how to tackle big challenges facing Maine communities.

"This process of imagination can be powerful, and you can use it on big problems like climate change and inequity," stated Blackford. "Use our imaginations. Imagine what we want the world to look like."

Maggie Hirshland, Rockland Main Street Fellow, concluded the event with an impassioned talk that centered on living in and appreciating the moment, which helped her to understand the benefits of asset-based community development. Hirschland learned to not worry about "what's next" but instead accept the invitations offered by the coastal community.

"The coast, the brick downtowns were inviting me into Rockland ... and I felt the same from the community," shared Hirshland. "Extend the invitation... Expand the circle of extending the invitation and sharing what we have with each other."

As the Main Street Fellows AmeriCorps Program says goodbye to its inaugural class of Fellows, it now has five new openings for Fellows in its upcoming class of hardworking and compassionate leaders for October 2021 to August 2022. Use the link below to browse openings.

View positions on Service Year

To learn more about each member, use the following link to access more information on the Maine Development Foundation website -- click here.

Please see below to access a video replay of each Main Street Fellow's talk. A playlist with each talk, a panel discussion and the full event replay is also available on the Maine Development Foundation YouTube channel -- access here.

2020-2021 Main Street Fellows

Nick Adams, Skowhegan Main Street Fellow

Nat Blackford, Main Downtown Center Main Street Fellow

Maggie Hirshland, Rockland Main Street Fellow

Eliot List, Skowhegan Main Street Fellow

Sam Perry, Biddeford Main Street Fellow

Perri Williams, Gardiner Main Street Fellow

View the 2020-21 Maine Street Fellows Showcase Panel Discussion below

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