It’s a great feeling to be in the center of things. Thea Youngs is starting the second year of her Island Institute fellowship on Chebeague Island, where she works in the Chebeague Town Office. She says it’s a great place to be. “It’s the center of activity. I like the way you never really know what is going to happen in a day.”

As the James and Joanne Cooney Island Fellow, Thea has been sharing her technical expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology with the town’s planning committee in the development of its comprehensive plan.

Chebeague is the newest island town, becoming independent on July 1, 2007. In the past, the state included Chebeague as an addendum to the Cumberland comprehensive plan.

It’s been a fascinating process for Thea. The state provides the data collected for every city and town, but islanders have found over the years that, while the state’s information is interesting, it is not always relevant to the issues that are most compelling for island life. For example, the state provided transportation maps for the island that included roads, but had no information about ferry routes or schedules.

Thea has been working with her island advisers Beth Howe, chair of the Chebeague Planning Board and a member of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, and Carol White, a member of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, and other committee members to review the state guidelines.

They plan to recommend changes and additions that will make the document more useful to the town’s actual planning process. Compiling the data required by the state consumes a great deal of time and energy. The Comprehensive Plan Committee is re-considering the philosophy of the plan so that the priorities on Chebeague Island are clearly reflected in the final document. Its members will work within the state’s regulations but also hope to inject a clear island perspective into the final product.

Thea came to Chebeague with a bachelor’s degree in geography from Mount Holyoke College. She had studied abroad at the University of London, and worked in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on research into patterns of infant mortality in 20th century England and Wales.

When she applied for the Island institute fellowship, she felt that her experiences as a small-town girl from Penacook, New Hampshire, studying abroad in metropolitan centers, were great preparation for settling into new and different environments, such moving to this small community.

Thea loves having the opportunity to integrate her GIS capabilities into the town’s planning process. Although there was some familiarity with the technology among planning committee members, the availability of precise GIS maps has shaped discussions on how land has been and is currently used, and has deepened and broadened the discussion of future land uses. Thea said, “My project couldn’t be a better match for what I’m interested in-I’m learning so much about the resources on the island because of my involvement in the planning process.”

The interaction of different voices and different perspectives gives a clear sense of the islanders’ priorities and passions. While many town meetings attract older residents, the comprehensive-planning process has attracted many others, and engaged their talents and interests.

It took some time for Thea to find her “place” on the island. Chebeague does not really have just one town center; houses and businesses are clustered in several places around the island. It was great fun getting to know the town employees, going out for coffee, stopping in at the island store, finding out where people gather, and getting an “in” on some of the jokes.

New relationships came easily with some of the members of the planning committee. Even though she doesn’t quilt, Thea loves to attend “quilting lunches” for the fun and conversation. There’s also a lot of music on the island, and Thea will be singing this season with The Whalers, a co-ed group of about 20 with an eclectic repertoire. She’s hoping to bring her flute and Irish whistle to get some jam sessions going with a local banjo player and concertina player.

Thea’s own plans for the time after her fellowship are still in the works, but she is thoroughly enjoying her time on island. “I love being part of a small community where you can get to know people in many different ways-through their work, their community involvements, as parents. And I love the feeling of being useful, that I can do something to help.” Of course, on an island, you don’t always know exactly how you will be useful. Thea has been recruited to take an Emergency Medical Technician course, as there are currently not enough EMTs on the island to cover all shifts. For Thea, living and working on this new island town is full of surprises.