One of the greatest privileges I enjoy while serving Maine in the United States Senate is the opportunity to meet outstanding young people from our state who have devoted part of their busy lives to carrying on Maine’s strong tradition of community service. I always come away from these meetings inspired by their commitment and encouraged for the future of our State and our nation.
I recently had the opportunity to meet two such remarkable young people – Meghan Charest of Falmouth and Kevin Ayotte of Madawaska – when they were in Washington to receive the 2015 Prudential Spirit of Community awards, which recognize students for exemplary community service. Although they have dedicated themselves to different types of civic involvement, Meghan and Kevin are united by a desire to make their communities better, to encourage others to get involved, and to grow personally from their experiences.
From nearly 20,000 nominees nationwide, only two students from each state are selected for this recognition. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, the largest youth recognition program based entirely on community service, so it was a particular honor to congratulate these two young Mainers.
Meghan, a 16-year-old junior at Falmouth High School, provides people in need in her community with fresh, organic produce through her community garden. After volunteering at the Falmouth Food Pantry and seeing how little fresh produce was available, Meghan was inspired to start her garden as a sustainable, effective way to provide healthier foods for the people using the food pantry. Her garden yields about 500 pounds of food per year.
Working with the food pantry coordinators, Meghan researched which crops have high yields and found community members willing to donate space for a garden. Meghan then secured a grant to buy gardening equipment; and spoke at schools, Girl Scout meetings and civic clubs to recruit volunteers. She and her team went to work planting, watering, weeding, harvesting produce and making weekly deliveries to the food pantry.
Meghan later enlisted the help of a master gardener who taught her more about growing healthy food. She moved her operation to a larger garden, and began using social media to recruit more volunteers. She also began raising money to maintain the garden by setting up fundraising tables at garden centers. Today, Meghan’s garden is the primary source of fresh produce for the food pantry, which serves about 900 people in her community. Meghan said that organizing and working in the garden helped her “realize the power, strength and grace that come with helping others.”
Kevin, 14, an eighth-grader at Madawaska Middle/High School, volunteers to perform a wide variety of jobs during both winter and summer for the Four Seasons Trail Association in his town. Kevin’s service started a few years ago when he saw an older man struggling to carry firewood from the basement to the fireplace at the Association’s lodge and pitched in to help.
Kevin then began volunteering to stack and load firewood at the lodge in the winter, keep the pellet stove’s hopper full, shovel the porch and deck, clean and organize the ski closet, and wax skis for the Association’s youth ski program.
Kevin found he enjoyed volunteering so much that he wanted to continue over the summer. He now mows the lawn at the lodge and helps to maintain ski trails by mowing and cutting brush. He also has helped build new trails and a garage for the Association. Kevin said the work he does “makes it easier for people to enjoy the outdoors and do things they like to do. I often tell other young people like me that volunteering can make a big difference to the community.”
The energy and commitment demonstrated by Meghan and Kevin benefit their communities today and will for years to come. In addition, both students are learning the important lesson of self-reliance and the sense of accomplishment that come from taking on responsibilities, setting goals, and achieving them.
Their desire to serve others is admirable. These two young people exemplify the tremendous capabilities of our youth. Communities across Maine and all of America are brimming with young people making a positive difference. I see it everywhere, and it continues to reaffirm my faith in our next generation of leaders and in our country’s future.