Thomas Neal, pastor of Lifespring Chapel in East Machias, said he and his congregation are eager to support grassroots efforts to build a youth recreation center in Washington County. Sitting next to him is his daughter, Sarah, who runs the church’s youth ministry. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JOHANNA S. BILLINGS

Community center concept draws support

EAST MACHIAS — During a conversation after Thanksgiving dinner, Teresa Maresh and Liz Henry came up with an idea.

What if residents, businesses and organizations could come together to create a community center that could engage the area’s youth with arts and crafts, chess, dance and other activities?

Thinking such a center might even help curb problems with addiction, the pair decided the idea was worthy of discussion with the community. At a meeting they hosted Jan. 27, more than a dozen people, including town officials and representatives of community groups, shared the reasons for their interest in the topic.

“We haven’t gotten anything started yet,” said Maresh, a resident of Machiasport. “We just want to get it going.”

Maresh and Henry, who lives in East Machias, are hoping the same people will come back for the next meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at the East Machias Fire Department, 571 Main St. The plan is to break into smaller groups, form committees and hone the idea.

“We realize that not one group can do it. It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” said Henry, likening puzzle pieces to people and community groups. “You put all those pieces together and we’ll come up with something awesome.”

At the Jan. 27 meeting, Thomas Neal, pastor of Lifespring Chapel in East Machias, said his congregation has been talking about expanding to include a recreation center, which he sees as a “desperate need.” He was pleased to see other members of the community interested in the same thing.

“It is going to come to pass,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic that we’re meeting to discuss starting a youth center in our community.”

His daughter, Sarah, who leads the church’s youth program, said she asked the church youth what they would want.

“They just wanted a place to go and hang out any day of the week,” she said, adding activities could range from basketball to video game tournaments. A rec center could offer a place to play board games or have dinner and would also be open to adults.

Several people said they felt that the local community didn’t offer enough for youths who are not involved in sports.

“Those kids that aren’t participating in basketball or other sports, they kind of get lost,” said Stephanie Heller, an ed tech at Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School.

“So we need something for all kids but especially the kids that don’t fit into athletics.”

Thomas Neal concurred, saying his children often feel isolated because they don’t play sports.

Maresh, who works in the anesthesia department at Down East Community Hospital in Machias, said she is seeing an increasing number of patients struggling with addiction. She said she thinks providing constructive activities will help lessen the problem because it will keep kids from turning to substance abuse to fit in.

“They don’t fit in with the cliques. I know there’s a clique because there’s a clique in every community,” she said. Those who don’t fit in elsewhere may end up finding a sense of community with others using drugs and alcohol.

“I absolutely agree that the youth need a place to go,” said Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien. The town has been working on several recreational projects including a community center and, she said, it makes sense to pool resources with others who are interested.

She suggested finding a central and accessible site for a community center and involving older people to create a place “where the elderly people or the middle-aged people connect with youth,” she said, “because it brings those generations together.”

“I think it brings sheer joy to the people whose kids have grown up and gone away and don’t have children around,” Therrien said, adding she understands because she has grandchildren in Massachusetts.

She recommended the group engage in more discussion before tackling topics such as fundraising or finding land on which to construct a building. It will be easier to seek grants and corporate donations once the group has established a vision.

Charley Martin-Berry, director of the Community Caring Collaborative, said she agreed with Therrien.

“I also feel like there’s work to be done around why we want to do this,” she said.

The Community Caring Collaborative is a partnership of more than 45 agencies, along with nonprofits and community members, working to improve the lives of vulnerable people in Washington County and across Maine, according to its website.

If supporters want to build a community center in part to combat or prevent substance abuse, they will need to discuss what that means to them and develop thoughtful language for presenting those ideas to the public, Martin-Berry said, adding her staff would be available to assist.

Board members from the Wesley Foundation, a nonprofit established in memory of Wesley Keeton and dedicated to youth enrichment, also attended the meeting. One board member, Dean McGuire, said the foundation would be able to put those in favor of forming a rec center in touch with people who could help.

“It’s going to take a large group of people,” he said.

Johanna S. Billings

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Johanna S. Billings covers eastern Hancock County and western Washington County. An avid photographer, she lives in Steuben with her husband and several cats. She welcomes tips and story ideas. Email her at [email protected]

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