What hot dogs, water tests, and juice boxes teach us about giving back

Island Institute staff on the things that keep them inspired during challenging times

Sue Bernier
Posted 2020-12-21

If your postal mailbox is anything like mine, we’ve moved on from political mudslinging to the more inspiring, unifying season of giving. My inbox is now filled with year-end giving requests instead of Election Day reminders, and interestingly enough, I enjoy receiving appeal letters and annual giving reminders. You read that correctly—I like being asked to give. This year especially, these annual appeals remind me of life beyond and before COVID and the world beyond my small home office. I like to see what some of my favorite nonprofits are doing, and I have a small pile saved and emails flagged for planning next year’s fall appeal from the Island Institute. I collect the good and the bad, and I learn from both. There are examples to remind our Philanthropy team of what not to do as well as appeal letters that accomplish the ultimate goal; they inspire me.

I recently asked the staff of Island Institute “what inspires you?” and “how do you give back to your community?” I wanted to learn from our teams on the ground, working with everyday people and in our communities. I wanted to hear what keeps our staff inspired during these challenging times, and how they give back to the communities where we live and work. I was not disappointed.

The Island Institute boasts an incredibly talented and caring staff of 52 people. We are driven, and we are focused on solutions. We care deeply about the island and coastal communities of Maine. That caring did not slow down when the pandemic forced us to work from home, which for three of our staff, meant returning to or staying in other states. Wherever they are, Island Institute staff are generous with their time, talent, and treasure. And for some, giving back started at a very young age.

Lisa Millette, Community Development Officer

When I was 6 or 7 years old, my older sister and I went with my dad to a trailer in Worcester, Massachusetts, and while we weren’t allowed in, the door to the trailer was left open and my older sister and I watched my dad ‘give blood.’ Not truly comprehending that it was okay for an adult to safely give their blood and that it might be used to save someone else’s life, I was concerned over what was happening. Fast forward to high school and when you were old enough to give, you were allowed to get out of class in order to go down to the gym and donate at the blood drive. Getting out of class? Check. Juice boxes and Cheez-Its? Check. I was in. And have been ever since (and not only for the juice boxes and Cheez-Its).

I donate blood because I can. I am a healthy adult that has little to no side effects in giving, I have a blood type that ~50% of people can receive, and I know others, such as my mother, sister, and housemate, are unable to donate even though they would like to. When COVID started to show its effect in late March, the Red Cross started pushing their marketing efforts for donors. Like many others, I did not feel comfortable going into a community building with other people to give, so I understood the shortage. However, their marketing efforts and pleas for donors bolstered my courage, and I’ve now given twice. Maybe my blood donation has saved a life, maybe it hasn’t, but giving blood is an easy way for me to give back to my community knowing the impacts could be huge. Plus, I get Cheez-Its and a juice box.

Lisa was not the only staff member to write to me about giving blood. Giving to fulfill lifesaving, essential needs was at the top of the list for many at the Island Institute. Several of our employees give regularly, throughout the year, to provide food, shelter, and caring to those most in need. For Sally Perkins, our events and building coordinator, that means serving as a foster home to litters of kittens all year long.

And for Community Development Officer Christa Thorpe, that means providing food to support her neighbors:

Food is my love language. The giving of flavorful nourishment was modeled for me by my mother and all the mothers of our community in South Asia where I spent my early years. This year I’ve been honored with many opportunities to nourish others in my community – sending homemade frozen meals to new parents down the road or to the neighbor whose father lost a short battle to cancer, or making probiotic-rich yogurt for the local nurse whose hours doubled in the pandemic. Making food helps me slow down and meditate with compassion on the lives who will be nourished by it. In my gratitude for all I have, I’m also challenged to consider the personal sacrifices I can make to address the astounding inequity in our world today.

For others, giving back was linked to those people or organizations that had given them support and caring earlier in life.

Kendra Jo Grindle, Senior Community Development Officer

I often give money, items, or time to organizations and causes that have impacted my life:

  • A camp scholarship for 2 campers unable to attend due to cost. I founded this scholarship at my local 4-H camp, because I only went to camp because anonymous donors paid for me to go.
  • Adopting pre-teen/teen ‘angels’ from The Salvation Army, because I was once that child who was supported by someone.
  • An increase in our donations to a local mission that we value, like cleaning supplies and clothing to family housing transition programs.

Now with a child, we will start teaching him about giving back. Currently, we slim down the new toys he receives from family throughout the year and give them to Toys for Tots. He doesn’t seem to mind since his favorite toy is a yogurt container!

Teaching the next generation about giving back was a recurring theme in the stories from Island Institute staff. Many wrote to me about teaching their children and others about giving.

Karen Burns, Chief Leadership Officer

Every year, I take my kids shopping where they have to pick out the ‘perfect gift,’ which we donate to an Angel Tree/Toys for Tots program. They used to get so mad when they had to give the gift away, but now they look forward to it.

Rob Beams, Chief Operating Officer

I have been working with Buzzards Bay Coalition for the last eight years and am a member of their Leadership Council.  Since getting involved with them, my wife and daughters have been doing water testing for Wings Cove in Marion, Massachusetts. As many as 26 tests per summer track salinity, dissolved oxygen, clarity and temperature. The Coalition combines this data with the information from 300+ other volunteers monitoring other sights around Buzzards Bay. The Coalition seeks to promote and protect the Bay and its watersheds for future generations.

Suzanne MacDonald, Chief Community Development Officer

Two years ago, when my kids were 5 and 2, we started dinner conversations at the holidays on who they could help. For the past two years, they chose the Pope Memorial Animal Shelter. They help me pick out items to donate, and then we bring it over together just before Christmas. During the first year, the animal shelter had hot dogs on their wish list, as they use them to hold medications for the dogs. I remembered giving my childhood dog hot dogs (it was probably terrible for her, but she loved them!) so that was, of course, on our list. It was quite the sight for me to watch my two little kids toddle into the shelter, holding big stacks of hot dogs all tied up with a bow, with other supplies in tow, and to watch them experience their first experience of giving. Of course, I got teary-eyed.

A few weeks later, the kids received a thank you postcard in the mail for their donation. It’s a little beat up, but that post card with the gray cat on the front is still in circulation and goes back and forth between their bedrooms as a prized possession. I hope they always feel so excited about giving and that the hot dogs are just a start!

Teaching our children about giving back is as valuable as the lessons we teach one another as adults. I learned from my peers at the Island Institute why this organization and our work together is so important to me and to the coast. Like many, I look back on 2020 as a very difficult year, with economic, social, and environmental challenges coming together in a perfect storm of uncertainty. Opportunities for divisiveness and polarity are everywhere. But so, too, are the opportunities to learn from one another and give back.

Kate Tagai, Senior Community Development Officer

Before COVID closed our public library, I volunteered two Saturday mornings a month, sometimes more as they needed me. I did this for myself, in order to meet more people in town and expand my sense of community, and I did it for my community because I believe strongly that access to public libraries is a way to fight against inequality. Libraries provide access to knowledge to everyone, without consideration for their ability to pay, their politics, or their orientation. They are crucial hubs for elders to socialize, for those out of work without internet or a computer to help them job search, or for teens needing to do homework.

The library in Union has a three-quarter time librarian as the only staff and is open all the hours it can be because of volunteers. Since the library has closed, I miss seeing the guy who comes in to check out 10 audio books at a time, which he listens to while landscaping; the guy who is researching his family history; the woman who comes in to make copies of the music she will play in church; the mother with 9 kids who each have their own labeled milk crate full of books; the teenager who geeks out about graphic novels with me; and the volunteer I most often ended up with on a Saturday morning. She often said the most outrageous things and challenged me in so many ways. I even miss her because, she helped me understand how complex people are and how having patience and listening can help build bridges… or if not bridges, at least moderately-stable rope swings?

As we look to a new year, I urge you to give back. Whether it be through extra patience for those with whom you disagree or a year-end gift to a nonprofit whose work has meaning for you, please give back. Be kind, be generous, and be safe.