Why Community Matters
Those of you whose lives are devoted to making lives better, to making communities stronger, know you reach out to people in a region that more than any other is known for its stubbornness, resistance to change, and a general “leave me alone, I’ll go it alone” ethic. You need a special empathy and determination to convince many New Englanders to reach out for support and necessary help.
There’s a story about two Maine fishermen who have been drifting for days, surviving on the blood of seabirds. Near death, they sight a distant ship. One fisherman waves his shirt wildly, screaming, pleading, for rescue. His companion says quietly, “Jed, don’t do anything to make you beholden to them.”
There’s also a doggedness here, a resiliency. An ethic not to whine, but to get through, to endure; the feeling that earlier New Englanders went through much more; we shouldn’t complain. I met a farmer not long ago, a man in his eighties who made his living delivering fresh eggs to more than 100 families using only his horse and buggy. He’d been doing that for 60 years. His house was old and worn, and a great black woodstove and a second wood furnace heated the drafty place. I asked him if he had backup heat, oil perhaps. He looked at me, surprised. “Son,” he said, “backup is me putting in more wood.”
For a pretty good chunk of Yankee‘s life — more than 30 years now — I’ve been an editor at Yankee. There are few places I haven’t seen in New England. The character of this region is not abstract to me — it’s alive in all the voices I’ve heard, voices whose words I’ve written down in notebooks that fill closets and file cabinets. At the heart of every story, I can tell you, have been people and place.
I’ve seen communities form in so many ways. Recently I spent time with Lela Anderson in Prospect Harbor, Maine. She’s been packing sardines for 54 years — her hands full of nicks and as knobby as the bark of an old oak from snipping heads and tails off herring for more than 25 years before machines took over the cutting. The sardine plant, the last one in the United States, was about to close. You’d think she’d be happy that she could finally get some rest and sit back, sleep in, and enjoy being 80. But no, this was her community: the women on her line — they stood shoulder to shoulder day after day — and always women, because, as the plant manager told me, “It takes a woman with a strong back to pack fish.” And, he added, “Men can’t do it.” She was losing her friends — the people she talked to every day — the people she listened to, because she was the communal mother and grandmother. And when that last day came, Lela cried her eyes out.
I told the story of Brendan Loughlin. I don’t know of any person more tied to community than Brendan, now nearly 70. His community is Guilford, Connecticut, and if you go there, you can’t miss him or his work. He gives painting classes in a downtown parking lot, and people come from all over to take them. When you walk the streets, you see his art everywhere — along sidewalks, murals on walls, canvasses hanging in shops. Brendan is Guilford.
And not so long ago, he was homeless here: living on food-bank canned food; sleeping in his daughter’s car, or sometimes in strangers’ sheds. After 9/11 he started painting bold sunflowers, bursting with color — his way of expressing, well, determination, hope, resistance to despair and fury. He’d paint, and people driving by would honk, and he’d smile — and then people started buying them, and people started coming up from the city and paying him enough to get him a neat little studio apartment near the green. And there’s barely room in it to squeeze a bed in — it’s coated with paintings and paint and brushes and blank canvasses waiting to be filled.
Guilford gave to Brendan and Brendan gave back. See, many of the people who own his paintings, who study with him, knew him when. He shows them every day that you can make your life a breathing canvas, and sometimes if the will is strong, you can wake up one day, paint a sunflower bursting with hope, and start over.
We have an annual feature we call “Angels Among Us.” Readers tell us about the unsung heroes who live in their communities, who work behind the scenes to make the lives of others better. The missions of these angels vary, but their goals are the same: Start small, think big. Follow the need wherever it leads.
Our readers have come to know Nancy Schwoyer of the Wellspring House in West Gloucester, Massachusetts. Wellspring was once one of the first family shelters in the state. “But we quickly realized that shelters are dead ends, and so we began investing in solutions,” Nancy said. So Wellspring grew to offer not just housing, but education — now with more than a dozen programs to help people lift themselves out of poverty. “We realized the system was broken,” Nancy told us. “So instead of just trying to fix it, we created something that worked better.”
We told the story of Deborah DeScenza, who created Farmsteads of New England, where developmentally disabled young people and adults could cast aside loneliness, where they could live and work in safety and beauty, supported by mentors. “When parents see their child flourish here,” she said, “they can finally just breathe.”
There are many others, of course. We tell about projects large and small, because they all spring from the same place: a need in a community and the desire to help fill it.
Which brings me to all of you in front of me tonight. For 30 years I’ve found stories in New England. And I’ve never found such a powerful place as I find myself in right now — here, surrounded by the people who make the Howard Center work, and the people who support it with your generosity.