Freeport Community Services celebrates its 40th year of Connecting Neighbors, Enriching Lives, this year. As we lead up to our signature White Nights celebration on Jan. 25, we’ll feature stories each week in the Tri-Town Weekly about what makes FCS so special and all of the people who have helped to make it one of the largest success stories in the state of Maine.
FREEPORT – There is something special about a founder – a person who approaches a need or problem with a combination of vision, tenacity, and true love.
We were able to gather a few of Freeport Community Services’ founders together this week to get a better picture of how the tireless, constant and caring acts of a small group of neighbors were dynamic enough to create this “place for everyone.”
As recently as the 1970s, Freeport was a town without a central organization to provide services to community members in need. There were many small, isolated individual, church, or town-based initiatives, but nothing comprehensive and most often, nothing sustainable. The United Way of Portland serviced communities only as far north as Yarmouth, and the United Way of Brunswick focused on the mid-coast. This left Freeport on its own for day care, after-school programs, transportation, as well as food and clothing programs.
“We were right in the middle, and we had nothing”, said Vaughndella Curtis, who has been involved with FCS through all of its 40 years. A group of people who represented the schools, the police and the churches got together in 1974 to say, “Here are the problems, what do we do to take care of them as a coordinated effort?”
Betsy Ruff, the organization’s first executive director, recalls the group’s vision that a central organization would be created to act as an umbrella.
“It was clear that we could not do everything, but there was a real desire to start things to support the need at FCS and to find a way to make them work,” Ruff said. “Often, we’d find other resources out there that we didn’t know about and we could route people there” noted Janice Fogg, one of the more colorful of the bunch.”
As FCS grew from being a well-organized group of volunteers into an institution with real staying power, it was this group of people who ensured the intention behind it would not falter. Each of these ladies was well placed in the community – some at the schools, some in town government and some in private business – and consistently wove FCS’s services into the fabric of the town. From police dispatch and the town clerk, to the school nurse and the day care centers, everyone knew who to call at FCS in order to ensure that a neighbor’s needs did not fall through the cracks.
During these early years, this lean organization operated out of front porches, garages, warehouses, even barns with no heat. Sherri Smith was instrumental in creating and staffing a hotline, manned by volunteers, to help understand and coordinate the service needs of the community. By carefully logging and tracking the calls, she said, the organization was able to gain intelligence about what needed troubleshooting, what was purely a referral, who needed transportation and what sort of programs needed to be developed.
Over the years the organization has offered a broad range of support, flexing with the needs of the times.
“I remember in the ’70s when the effects of the shoe manufacturers leaving Freeport and the mid-town fire were being felt,” said Vaughndella. “We did a lot to help those families. Food, clothes, bedding…”
In the early ’80s, there was a focus on programs to help latchkey kids, as more of Freeport’s moms went to work outside the home. FCS was one of the first organizations in the state of Maine to create a grieving families group where people (from up and down the coast) who lost children could come and lend support to one another.
Carol Southall recalls a formative discussion that happened as the group began to set up the food bank.
“Initially, there was some concern about determining policy – who was going to get food and how much”.
But then, Muriel Wilson, a longtime state social worker and very wise woman asked, in her quiet way, “How do you think it feels if you have to take your children and go to a food bank and ask for food? Right there we decided that FCS was going to be a place where you could come to get aid, no questions asked,” said Carol.
The afternoon was filled with wonderful and emotional tales of at-risk students who were adopted and turned (if only for a while) into “A” students; single, unemployed mothers whose children have now graduated college; and recurring trips to the doctor that created lifelong bonds between a Freeport elder and a volunteer. With more than 100 years of combined service, these ladies have done it all – and it was evident that they had a real love and respect for each other and a pride in all they have accomplished.
Today, Freeport Community Services has more than 650 volunteers who are trained to keep the founders vision and spirit alive. It has a permanent home in the center of town featuring a large food bank, a busy thrift shop, and a warm and welcoming community center. And, it still provides services to those in need with as few barriers as possible.
When the founders were asked to impart their hopes for the future of FCS a few themes were clear.
“Don’t lose that personal touch and feel to the community. That is the basis of this group and for our incredible reputation in our community and in the state,” said Shari Smith.
“We need to make sure that everyone knows each other’s name. To keep true to our motto of neighbors helping neighbors,” said Ruff.
Curtis agreed, and you just might be seeing some of these founding mothers greet you at the Community Center door the next time you come in for coffee.
Many thanks to The White Nights sponsors for underwriting these stories: Bath Savings Bank, Curtis Thaxter, Brown Goldsmiths, The Bradley Family, Powers and French, Tri-Town Weekly, FreeportUSA, the Law Offices of Mark Standen and Peter Warren.