Friday, October 5, 2012

Journey of Awakening - 51: Mainer Again

It had been a grueling year so far. I had been home in Boston with my family a total of seven weeks out of the seven months on the road. It was good to be back in my home turf again, even though I was sent out immediately to travel along the Maine coastline all the way to New Brunswick. My assignment was to search out a fishing village that might meet the ICA's criteria for a Human Development Project. An HDP was, as I think of it, an extended and continuous Town Meeting. During the time when our staff and volunteers were engaged in the campaign of 5000 Town Meetings across the United States the ICA was also sending staff into villages and towns in places as diverse as India, Egypt, Africa, Australia, Indonesia, Korea, The Philippines to work with local residents on sustainable futures for themselves and their communities.

We would begin these projects with a week-long "consult" bringing together local leadership and citizens with our ICA staff and volunteers to design together a plan that the community would implement with assistance from a small resident ICA staff who would live and work in the community for two to three years, after which local leaders who had been trained in participatory methods would carry on with actualizing their vision for their community.

In addition to the overseas communities, we selected 12 regions of the United States where we could initiate these demonstration projects, most of them in rural communities where the economy had left people feeling abandoned and hopeless. One of these was to be in Maine and since I had worked and travelled throughout the state the previous fall I was sent out as an advance scout with the thought that it might be one of the hundreds of fishing villages along the Maine coast that would be right for one an HDP. Of course, in the tradition of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, without consulting our resident Maine "expert," (me), someone in the ICA's Chicago headquarters sent another team out into the interior farmlands of the state and, by the time I returned from one of my forays, the town of Starks, Maine had been selected as a better choice for the project. So I dutifully "packed it in" and filed the voluminous notes on fishing villages and returned to Boston, awaiting further orders.


These came quickly. Our House was to host the teams of staff and about twenty volunteers who would be arriving for the consult to be held in May. Preparations included selling the powers-that-be on the advantages of not only a bunch of outsiders descending on their town for a couple of weeks, but inviting two or three families to stay on for a couple more years, and finding suitable housing for them to boot. Miraculously, gaining permission happened with hardly a question about our motives, in spite of the fact that many of these small rural communities had been suspicious of do-gooders offering gifts and being taken advantage of during the years of the "war on poverty" in the sixties. Somehow, our approach of development of local leadership and self-reliance struck a positive chord among these Maine farmers.

The week of the consult was scheduled for May. In advance of the date our ICA staff in New England was assigned to work with the team from Chicago who would be the staff on-site for the years following the consult. We had to arrange lodging for the consult team and more permanent housing for the staff. Someone from Starks offered free use of an old abandoned farmhouse outside of town. So we were set. When we arrived we found that abandoned was a mild word. This house was forlorn. It was set in a beautiful wooded area but the years of neglect showed in its leaky roof, broken windows, creaking floors, and a well that was somewhat suspect. There was actually an indoor toilet but the septic tank didn’t work and there was no outhouse in sight. This meant we had to live in the house for a couple of weeks, carry water from town, and dig a temporary latrine out in the woods while the repairs were being made and the “terrible awful” septic tank was dug out. That was accomplished in a weekend with the help of our son Eric, a fourth grader, who, after his parents along with the other adults on our crew stood in a circle staring down into this murky cauldron of filth waiting for volunteers, jumped in with both feet, asked for a shovel, and began digging out.

Somehow the house was readied, lodging for the consult team was secured, and this all was accomplished in a couple of weeks. The consult team members arrived and were housed in a tent camp which may have built for hunting and fishing. One item of pre-planning, however, had been overlooked. May was “black fly season.” Having grown up in Minnesota, where mosquito stories abound, I was totally unaware of the black fly. I soon discovered that mosquito netting was of no use to keep them out. These pesky critters were so small they were almost invisible. They swarmed. And their bite was not just annoying. It stung.

The week did come off without a hitch. The town leaders and the townspeople were satisfied with the work they had done planning for their future and were ready to dive into the practical work ahead.

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We had a big celebration at the end of the week with a cookout and games on the town square. Then all of us who were there for the consult packed up and left our small staff team led by a young couple, John and Katy Chafee, to carry on with the implementation of the project. We felt like we were abandoning them to an unbelievable on-the-job-training experience. They were so young. But they assured us they were ready.

Linda and I and Eric headed back to Boston to finish up and prepare for the summer and for our next year’s assignment, somewhere in the world.

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