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Home Community Maine Voices: What volunteer firefighting taught me about community building

Maine Voices: What volunteer firefighting taught me about community building

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My two jobs have always felt as different to me as night and day. It’s only taken four years to finally see that they are not.

My “day job” for nearly 40 years has been at the hunger organization Share Our Strength, which I founded in 1984 and for which I commute to Washington, D.C.

With 300 staff members and more than $1 billion raised since starting with a $2,000 cash advance on a credit card, we’ve helped drive childhood hunger in the United States to its lowest level in decades by ensuring all eligible kids get school breakfast, school lunch and summer meals.

The work has taken me to all 50 states and around the world, from Haiti to Ethiopia. We’ve engaged thousands of volunteers on the belief that everyone has a strength to share – a talent, skill or gift that can make a difference – whether they are chefs cooking at food and wine benefits, novelists donating stories or corporate chief executives.

Here in Maine, we’ve funded school meals programs from Kittery to Presque Isle, as well as Wabanaki Public Health and many other great Maine nonprofits.

My other job, as a volunteer firefighter in Kennebunkport, has been confined to just a few square miles.

My son, also a firefighter, persuaded me to join the department four years ago. Many of my colleagues know more about firefighting than I ever will, but fire Chief Jay Everett feels that if you are willing to train and try, there is something for everyone to do on the fireground. If “interior certified,” you can take hose into a burning building or effectuate a rescue. If not, you can drive the engine or ladder trucks as I do, operate the pumps, direct traffic, set ladders or roll hose. Chief Everett doesn’t use the vernacular of “sharing strength” but the result is the same – everyone able to contribute something.

This was never so clear to me than during the winter storm at the end of January when KPFD responded to more than 60 calls in just a few days. They included trees and wires down, gas odor investigations, pumping out flooded basements, even rescuing a woman whose car plunged off a bridge into the Kennebunk River. The dozens of volunteer firefighters who worked 20-hour days represented a diversity of backgrounds, skills and political views. As a result, they all had different strengths to share – ranging from physical strength to understanding engineering, home construction, electrical wiring or the town’s water supply.

While the days were longer than usual, they were no different than many other times volunteer firefighters left work, stepped away from a meal or got out of bed in the middle of the night to help someone in need, committed to giving something back to their community and being part of something larger than themselves.

For years I thought of “sharing strength” in terms of celebrity chefs cooking at food and wine events to benefit our No Kid Hungry campaign, or the actor Jeff Bridges helping us raise awareness, or the actress Viola Davis advocating for enrolling kids in school breakfast programs.

Our volunteer fire department doesn’t have such celebrities. Nor do we need them. Because sharing strength is also extinguishing a fire on the stove, extricating someone from an overturned car in a ditch and talking about fire safety to students at the Consolidated School. Everyone has a strength to share, and so everyone can make a difference.

Whether you think globally and act locally or vice versa, one is not necessarily better than the other. Either way, acts of sharing strength add up, and communities grow closer, safer and stronger.

It’s what I talk about a lot in Washington, D.C.

It’s what I see every day in Maine.

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