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Angels Among Us 2013

Later in the afternoon, Jodka meets up with Rafael Ramon, a middle-aged man originally from Puerto Rico who’s called Pawtucket his home for 35 years. Wiry, with a thin, graying goatee framing his narrow face, Ramon comes from a family of farmers. When Jodka and Grijalva announced their plans in 2010, he jumped at the chance to help out. “It changed me a lot,” Ramon says, sitting on a picnic table outside the garden. “I’ve met a lot of new people, and I’ve met a lot of kids who want to learn from me. That makes me feel good. It makes me want to continue. It can be crazy here.” His eyes pan over to the garden, where he’s put in so many hours of his life these past three years. “This is a place that isn’t crazy.”

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Open Heart
Steve Gordon

In the fall of 2007, Steve Gordon embarked on what many colleagues considered a curious career change. A longtime newspaper reporter and editor, Gordon, who lives in
Cornish, New Hampshire, left the world of journalism to work full-time as a massage therapist.

“I remember getting a lot of what I call the ‘bad clam’ look,” says the 57-year-old of his old newspaper friends. “It’s like they have a bad clam in their mouth, but they’re trying not to look like they do. There were a lot of weak smiles and people going, ‘Isn’t that nice.’”

Truth is, Gordon had been practicing massage since 2000. He’d not only developed a growing client list but for several years had volunteered at Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he worked on patients who were undergoing rigorous cancer treatments. It was intense work, with many trying to face down fears about their illness, their prognosis, and their future. They were anxious, often in pain, and struggled to sleep. “But I could see how much they benefited from massage,” Gordon says. “At first some might push back a little, and maybe I’d end up doing nothing but a foot massage, but when I left, they were asleep.”

But the benefits went only so far. Many patients simply couldn’t afford to pay for massages after they’d been discharged from the hospital. And that sparked an idea. In June 2007, just a few months before he left his newspaper job, Gordon launched the Hand to Heart Project, a small nonprofit that offers free in-home massages to cancer patients living in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont.

The mechanics of the operation are simple: Gordon serves anyone with advanced cancer. That goes for the single mother living in affordable housing in Claremont, New Hampshire, to the wealthy senior in Woodstock, Vermont. Some need only infrequent massages; others, facing more complicated issues, require multiple visits per week. Since launching Hand to Heart, Gordon and his small crew of therapists, whom the nonprofit pays a modest amount for each visit, have worked on more than 200 cancer patients. Referrals come from hospitals, hospice programs, and others familiar with the program. “[Steve] just creates this wonderful connection,” says Donna St. Peter, a Wilder, Vermont, resident, whose late husband, Michael, received massages from Gordon over the last two years of his battle with lung cancer. She’s now a board member of Hand to Heart. “When I came home from work, I could tell Michael had gotten a massage, because his whole persona changed. He was hopeful, energetic—he just felt better.”

Like any good journalist, Gordon has collected stories from his profession: about the clients he’s worked with, the friendships he’s formed, the perspective he’s gained on life and death. And when he speaks about his work, there’s a reverence in his voice for the people he’s met as a result of his new career.

One of the clients he remembers with particular fondness was an older woman in Lebanon who was suffering from lung cancer. When Gordon met her last winter, she had only a few months to live, and she was severely shaken by her illness and what she was facing. As the weeks passed and the cancer sapped more of her strength, Gordon had to lift her up onto his table. During her last few days, he simply came to sit by her bed, placing his hands on her and letting her know he was there for her.

“She would lean into me, and hold my hand against her chest,” Gordon says. “I feel like every time I work with someone in that situation, I’m learning not just how I want to live, but how I want to die. When somebody approaches the end of their life with as much grace, openness, and love as she did, that’s a pretty amazing thing to experience.”

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The Good Neighbor
Sharon Hutchins

In small communities across New England, a little help goes a long way. In tiny Andover, Maine, Sharon Hutchins has had the kind of impact that would make a wealthy phil­anthropist envious. A native Mainer, mother of two, and a schoolbus driver for more than 30 years, Hutchins has poured much of her life into improving the well-being of the kids in her town.

In 1987 she spearheaded the resurrection of the Andover Education Fund, a college scholarship program for Andover seniors that had lain dormant for three decades. Under Hutchins’ direction, it launched a successful annual fall fund­raising campaign and earned its nonprofit status. Today, the fund provides $2,500 a year to each Andover resident attending a two- or four-year accredited college. In all, the organization annually hands out some $25,000 to $30,000 to help defray higher-education costs.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Friday, November 15th, 2013

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