One of the things that makes our community great is our unwavering commitment to help each other. No matter where you go in the greater Saco Bay area you can find people volunteering and improving the lives of our neighbors. Finding ways of harnessing this spirit into action to foster active citizenship and social responsibility is the core of what the newly formed Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement is all about.
Between my extended family heavily involved in the military and growing up with parents in leadership roles with Rotary, service has been a key component in my life. Founding this nonprofit service organization, in many ways, is a culmination of my life’s work. Even though I haven’t been on this Earth for very long, the things I’ve done up to this point have led me here where I can make the most impact and difference in our community.
There were three distinct things that ultimately made me file the paperwork and start a six-month journey of forming the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement. First was the Saco Bikes for Kids campaign. This was a partnership with the Eastern Trail Alliance, Saco Parks and Recreation, the city planner, Saco resident Melissa Field and countless businesses and supporters who helped us to raise more than $5,000 to provide bikes for children to use on the Eastern Trail. This project is a great concept that could be brought to area communities and expanded to include educational components and involve schools. Thus there was a need for a nonprofit standalone entity to oversee this effort, and in many ways for projects like this to be creatively channeled. The Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement will serve as an incubator space for creative projects like Saco Bikes for Kids to be created and fostered to grow that can’t easily be done in existing organizations or government agencies.
The second factor was my bill to enable teachers to grade community service as a high school graduation standard. This was passed unanimously in the House and the Senate and even signed into law by the governor. The idea gets us closer to the concept of having multiple pathways for students to learn in a variety of different areas. One of the things that business owners have approached legislators with is the complaint that students are graduating high school – and in many respects college – without strong soft skills, such as a good work ethic and interpersonal communication skills. These skills can be learned outside the classroom in settings where students can volunteer in their own backyard on a service learning project. With this passage, there will be a greater need to channel this increased community involvement from students in a creative way. The Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement can help meet this need.
Another key factor was the intense grassroots effort to the save the Saco Drive-In. This was a 10-month crusade that involved literally anybody and everybody that could pitch in to save a cultural and economic pillar of the area and our state. After we were successful, those of us who organized this effort, including myself, owner Ry Russell and Camille Smalley at the Saco Museum, felt that burning passion of community organizing wasn’t going away. In fact, we had an even greater desire to continue to organize for a better tomorrow.
Now we have an opportunity to bring each of our communities together through service. Too often it’s easy to get caught up in what divides us between Saco, Biddeford and Old Orchard Beach, from old cultural differences to schools to differences in political philosophy, but service is something that instantly breaks down those barriers. For instance, when you volunteer at the local soup kitchen, everything else gets erased but that child or senior coming in for a warm meal. That becomes the priority regardless of who you are working with. Much like the actual Saco Bay itself touches each of our communities, the Saco Bay can also be a unifying and uniting metaphor in empowering the best of each of us to move all of us forward together.
Some of the projects we have on the docket that you can get involved with are Dirigo Talks, a speaker series with experts on making our lives better; Volunteers! program, getting pledges from area residents to commit to a certain number of hours of community service with a goal of full participation from every person, Bikes for Kids, getting our next generation more active on the Eastern Trail; Quality of Place Project, aiming to preserve our dynamic ties to the past as we look toward improvements in the future from park development and clean up to supporting our local veterans; Treetops to Rooftops GIS, combining technology with nature and history to promote both ecotourism and historical interactions; Being an Outdoors Girl, empowering young women to get out in nature; and many more projects on the horizon.
Aside from our own projects, the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement will hopefully serve as the glue between the many great civic organizations already in place including Saco Spirit, Heart of Biddeford, OOB 365, Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Crossroads and school clubs. The more each of our groups can partner and work collaboratively, the greater the impact we can make.
I know that together we can make a real difference. I hope you join with me in making the greater Saco Bay area a hub for the state in providing a successful platform for increasing civic participation.
Justin Chenette is the State Representative for Saco, CEO of Chenette Media LLC, and is the founder/president of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement. To contact Justin and to receive his updates you can visit www.JustinChenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/ JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco