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The Maine Seacoast Mission – Finding a Way to Do What Needs to be Done

Helping Maine residents in Downeast Maine’s isolated towns and island communities isn’t the easiest task in the best of times. For the Maine Seacoast Mission, the Covid-19 pandemic complicated what was already difficult work.

“When it began we set out to help,” said John Zavodny, president of the Mission, whose offices are in Northeast Harbor. “Food security was a crisis in Downeast Maine. The system was decimated. Many of the volunteers who staff the food pantries were high risk and so retreated to home.” When the state shut down in spring, 2020, Seacoast Mission staff stepped in to make sure that food distribution centers could continue. “We moved outdoors, made it no-touch distribution. People could order their food online and it was drive-in service.”

That approach — to step in quickly when there’s a problem — is built into the fabric of the Mission from its earliest days. The Mission started in 1905 when Alexander and Angus MacDonald, Mount Desert Island pastors and brothers, decided to sail a small sloop called Hope to islands and lighthouses along the Maine coast in order to provide help to the families living there. Angus MacDonald was connected to many of the island’s wealthy summer residents, whom he solicited for help in funding the Mission and its activities.

Rehabilitating homes is one component of the Maine Seacoast Mission's work. MSM photo.

The first of the Mission’s many vessels named Sunbeam was commissioned in 1912. The Sunbeam brought books, supplies, church services, and pastoral care to the isolated coastal communities of Hancock and Washington counties and to the manned lighthouses and islands of the region. The Sunbeam also transported the sick to hospitals and provided basic health care and vaccinations.

When the pandemic took hold, the Mission was providing after-school programming, housing rehabilitation, heating assistance, and emergency resources for any number of crises to Downeast residents as well as extensive health care and religious services for island communities. But those programs were knocked akilter when COVID struck. The one-on-one connections built up over the years between Mission staff and Mission patrons could no longer take place.

“Our staff were all working from their homes so we started our Reach Out program,” Zavodny explained. “We called everyone who had used our services by phone to see how they were doing. We took the phone book for an island and just called everyone. The staff made more than 4000 calls at that time, for the human touch and to show concern.”

The phone calls showed that many people were having problems, some of which were amplified by the pandemic. Mission staff helped get leaking roofs mended, washing machines replaced, provided food, transportation to medical and other appointments, anything that needed to be done during that first year of COVID.

By early 2021 COVID vaccines had become available. Getting those vaccines out to the islands posed another set of complex problems. COVID vaccines had to be administered twice within a 28-day period. The vaccines had to be kept cold during transport and, once removed from cold storage, injected within a relatively short period of time. “It was incredibly complicated, yes. The team did an amazing job,” Zavodny said.

Health staff worked with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to become an official vaccine provider. Between February and late April, the Mission’s Island Health team managed to bring the vaccines from Mt. Desert Island Hospital to 20 scheduled vaccination clinics on seven islands without a hitch. Staff flew on Penobscot Bay Air to Matinicus, traveled on the Laura B out of Port Clyde to reach Monhegan, and hitched rides on lobster boats to the Cranberry Islands and other islands. In total, the Mission administered 928 COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters on the islands.

Left, Doug Cornman, right, Sharon Daley. MSM photo.

Dealing with other health issues among island residents presented another complexity. Where before Director of Island Health, Sharon Daley, RN, would visit the islands every two weeks to offer medical care and access to the onboard telehealth clinic or to visit with patients at home, COVID restrictions limited those visits. The Mission credo, however, seems to be that if one way is blocked, find another.

Daley and Director of Island Outreach and Sunbeam Chaplain Douglas Cornman took to the phone. The two worked together to connect islanders to health resources remotely. Through a case management approach, they ensured that each person with health issues who would have been seen aboard the Sunbeam was similarly addressed by mainland health providers. Daley even set up an inter-island Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that continues to meet remotely. “She does whatever needs to be done to get things done,” Zavodny said.

Despite COVID waning in Maine, Zavodny said that many of the actions the Mission took during the pandemic’s height will likely remain. For example, the monthly inter-island worship services initiated by Chaplain Cornman which proved so popular will continue. Tele-health services to islanders, in particular the mental health and counseling services, will continue although Zavodny noted that insurance companies have begun to reinstate strict regulations regarding reimbursement which had been loosened during the pandemic.

Less favorable trends will also continue after the pandemic. “We are witnessing what most communities are witnessing, a further stratification of the socio-economic structure in Downeast Maine,” Zavodny said. “The changes in demography in our area are much like the rest of the country. There’s a greater split between the wealthy and the poor.”

The pandemic inspired those with the means or with jobs that could be done remotely to move from more densely populated areas of the country to more rural regions. Maine saw a sharp uptick in migrants from out of state, many of whom had the money to buy property along the coast. Between 2009 and 2021, the median price of a home sold in Washington Country rose from $95,00 to $163,500. This increase took place in a county with an 18.1% poverty rate in 2020. The county’s median annual income was $44,847, according to the Maine Department of Labor, which means that one half of the county’s population of 31,000 makes less than that amount.

Yet Zavodny feels that the influx of wealthier people to the Downeast region has had some benefits. “People with means who take seriously their obligation to care for their neighbors look at us as a means to do that. We think diversity is a good thing. Folks with more means are very generous with their support,” he said.

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