Maine Voices: What volunteer firefighting taught me about community building

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

My “full-time job” has been with the hunger organization Share Our Strength, which I founded in 1984 and for which I commute to Washington, DC, for almost 40 years

With 300 employees and more than $1 billion raised on a credit card since inception with a $2,000 cash advance, we’ve helped bring child hunger in the United States to its lowest level in decades by ensuring that all eligible children receive school breakfasts, school lunches 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 in the belief that everyone has a strength to share – a talent, skill or gift that can make a difference – whether they are chefs who cook food and wine, novelists, who donate stories, or company bosses.

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

My other job as a Kennebunkport volunteer firefighter was limited to a few square miles.

My son, also a firefighter, talked me into joining the department four years ago. Many of my colleagues know more about firefighting than I ever do, but Fire Chief Jay Everett believes that if you are willing to train and put in the effort, there is something for everyone on the fire campus. If you’re “certified for indoor use,” you can take a hose into a burning building or perform a rescue. If not, you can drive motor carts or ladder trucks, operate pumps, direct traffic, set up ladders, or roll hoses like I do. Chief Everett doesn’t use the slang of “sharing strength,” but the result is the same—everyone can contribute.

This was never clearer to me than during the late January winter storm, when the KPFD responded to more than 60 calls in a matter of days. This has included tearing down trees and cables, gas odor investigations, pumping out flooded basements and even rescuing a woman whose car fell off a bridge into the Kennebunk River. The dozens of volunteer firefighters, working 20-hour days, represented a variety of backgrounds, skills and political views. As a result, they all had different strengths to share – from physical strength to an understanding of technology, house building, electrical wiring or the city’s water supply.

Although the days were longer than usual, they were no different than many other times when volunteer firefighters left work, left a meal, or got up in the middle of the night to help someone in need and made a commitment to give back to their community and part to be of something greater.

For years I thought of “Sharing Strength” in terms of celebrity chefs cooking at food and wine events to support our No Kid Hungry campaign, or actor Jeff Bridges helping us raise awareness, or actress Viola Davis, who advocates enrolling children in school breakfast programs.

Our volunteer fire brigade doesn’t have such celebrities. We don’t need them either. Because sharing power also means putting out a fire on the stove, rescuing someone from an overturned car in a ditch, and talking about fire safety with Consolidated School students. 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. In either case, acts of sharing strength add up and communities grow closer, safer, and stronger.

I talk about this a lot in Washington, DC

I see that every day in Maine.

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