Reflections is written by Island Fellows, recent college grads who do community service work on Maine islands and in coastal communities through the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.
As I drove down Main Street on Vinalhaven for the first time, admiring the dozens of lobster boats moored in Carver’s Harbor, I was struck by a weird phenomenon: several people whom I passed waved at me. Coming from living in more densely populated suburbs, I had never experienced this before, and it felt strange to have others acknowledge my existence. I was too distracted by my surroundings, taking in what was to be my home and workplace as an Island Fellow for the next two years, to wave back.
The next time I left my home, more passersby waved, and I realized these were not extraordinary experiences. Instead, it is just the way life is on Vinalhaven.
Dozens of volunteers serve to staff a variety of committees that provide essential services…
Within a few days, I obliged and began waving, almost compulsively, at all those I passed. I soon grew accustomed to unthinkingly raising fingers from my side or the car steering wheel as I crossed paths with anyone on island. It has become such a habit that I will often forget it is not the custom whenever I return to the mainland and absentmindedly wave to others who are likely just as confused as I was when I first got off the ferry on Vinalhaven.
This informal custom of all greeting all has been a salve during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other Maine islands, the community is tightknit and friendly, especially during the off-season months of October through May. The pandemic has disrupted life on the island much as it has in the rest of the country and made moving here in its midst a strange experience.
Joining the community in September of 2020 meant far fewer opportunities to get properly introduced into the social fabric of the island. The inability to socialize safely has slowed the process of putting a name to the approximately 1,200 faces currently residing on the island.
And yet, the mere fact that others continually validate my existence by waving whenever I pass them has made me feel welcome. I appreciate the welcoming atmosphere cultivated by the unending waving and it has led me to the realization that residents of Vinalhaven look out for one another with an increasingly rare neighborliness and warmth.
My work on Vinalhaven has afforded me a more intimate look into the strong sense of community residents here have. My fellowship brought me to Vinalhaven to work within its town office to assist in implementing some of its longer-term strategic goals, such as revamping departmental reporting and assisting volunteer citizen committees with their missions.
Through my first six months here I have witnessed firsthand the effort it takes for an island community to effectively administer its municipal government—and it truly is the whole community, not just town office employees, helping administer it.
Beyond the several town employees who work daily to help maintain the island’s transfer station, public infrastructure, and more, dozens of volunteers serve to staff a variety of committees that provide essential services like crafting zoning policy and, in the case of the select board, serving as the executive decision-making body for the town.
Ultimately, the whole community is responsible for ensuring the government continues to serve their needs. Each year, in late spring, Vinalhaven’s town meeting convenes and the community comes together to vote on the proposed budget for the coming year. Without the involvement of residents and their vocal feedback—not just during the meeting but throughout the year at various select board and committee meetings—the municipal government would fail to reflect the will of the community.
More importantly, this collective effort would not be possible without the cohesion fostered by small, kind gestures, such as waving to anyone and everyone on the island.
Matt Jablonski is working with Vinalhaven’s town government to integrate its strategic plan and develop its organizational infrastructure. He is a graduate of Haverford College with a degree in English.