SACO – Rep. Justin Chenette (D-Saco) has founded a new nonprofit that he hopes will inspire citizens to volunteer and perform community service. A kickoff celebration for the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement was held last week to highlight the new organization’s goals for the next year.
Chenette said he sees the group serving as “an incubator space to foster creative ideas that don’t fit in the context of existing nonprofit or governmental agencies.”
“This is meant to be the glue,” Chenette said. “ Hopefully this can be that connective tissue across the communities, to bring communities and individual organizations themselves together.”
Chenette said there were three distinct things that led him to believe there was a need for a group to work more broadly to invigorate public activism. Chenette said his work with two community efforts – theSaco Bikes for Kids campaign and the effort to save the Saco Drive-In – made him realize the community could benefit from an organization that sup- ports people who are trying to start new community projects.
In addition, Chenette said a bill he sponsored last year was written into law that allows teachers to grade community service as a standard for graduation. Chenette said as a result, interest among high school students in volunteering in their community would likely grow, and students will be looking for service opportunities.
Chenette, who is president of the center, said the group may serve as an “umbrella” organization for theBiddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach communities, to “funnel community projects” and match potential volunteers to projects they are interested in.
Executive Vice President Camille Smalley said she and Chenette were discussing one day last spring “how great it would be to have one nonprofit that focused on community service and offering different ways for people to volunteer, that offered resources and really united people.”
Smalley is the collections and research manager for Dyer Library and Saco Museum, and an adjunct professor at the University of New England. She is involved with the Saco Area Historical Society and helped with the effort last year to obtain a projector for Saco Drive-In, eventually writing a book about its history.
Chenette said the group is going to start a campaign this year to get as many people as possible to pledge to volunteer at least 12 hours a year for the community.
“Imagine if every single person in the city gave back to their community,” Chenette said.
Although the group is going to look at ways to involve people of all ages in volunteerism, Chenette said, “Youth engagement is going to be one of the centerpieces of it.”
The group has already begun working with Thornton Academy to help channel students to different community service opportunities. Chenette said he found out after his bill had passed that Old Orchard Beach High School requires 20 hours of community service for graduation.
Smalley said there are many ways that people can give back and if people are given opportunities that match their interests, they will want to volunteer.
“The best way to engage people and get them excited is by offering flexible ways for them to get active and that targets their interest,” Smalley said. “Many people don’t realize that service is multi-faceted and that getting involved doesn’t have to be drudgery. My goal is to help people find their passion and make it accessible.”
For starters, Chenette said the center is going to continue the work of Bikes for Kids by possibly getting bicycles donated to schools and helping them set up an educational component about bicycling. The group also intends to host a series of Dirigo Talks, bringing in speakers to address a range of community interest topics.
Chenette said another critical piece to the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement will be supporting community activities that recognize veterans for their service.
“The historical connection to the past as a way of looking to the future, and taking care of veterans is a big part of it,” Chenette said.
The group plans on working with veterans to hold a Vietnam Veterans Day of Remembrance, and to help coordinate the Memorial and Veterans Day parades this year. The Biddeford Saco Twin City Veterans Council, which had organized the parades for many years, announced last year that the organization was dissolving and would no longer be able to spearhead the efforts.
Even though Chenette’s group is called a center, it has no physical location from which it operates.
“We're a roaming board,” Chenette said. “Rather than having a physical space and being in the office all day, it allows us to be out in the community.”
The organization, which has applied to the Internal Revenue Service for 501c3 nonprofit status, has no paid staff and is led by a volunteer board of directors. Chenette said the group’s real goal is to help other community groups to organize themselves and raise money.
“We hope to foster a lifelong commitment to active citizenship and social responsibility,” Chenette said. “It’s pretty broad, but we wanted to leave it broad so creativity and new ideas could grow from it.”
Smalley said she became excited when Chenette first proposed the idea of the center to her.
“Coming from a nonprofit background, I see volunteers daily and thrive on people who enjoy doing good for their community,” she said.