As Mary Terry describes it, a pivotal moment in her decision to work as an Island Fellow for the Island Institute came about 10 years ago.
On a trip to the Common Ground Fair, she and her friends took a side trip to Rockland, where she was stopped cold by an image in Peter Ralston’s exhibition at the Island Institute.
In “Dick and Nate,” an elderly fisherman in rain gear stands next to a young boy holding a fish. Mary, a Kittery native, had grown up surrounded by fishermen and had seen with increasing clarity that, as these seafarers aged and passed away, they often carried their fishing legacies with them. A way of life was passing that was uniquely Maine. This photograph drew Mary in, and the effort to preserve a way of life became personal.
It took several years, but Mary, in her late 40s, is now living on a Maine island, where she serves the communities on Peaks and Cliff Islands in Casco Bay. On Peaks Island, Mary works with HOMESTART, a nonprofit affordable housing initiative; on Cliff Island, she provides assistance to the Cliff Island Corporation for Athletics, Conservation, and Education (ACE).
In addition to her duties with ACE, Mary has been surprised to find herself learning to map woodlands on Cliff Island using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology as part of a fire-safety project for the National Forest Service. The Fellows Program has been known to stretch personal boundaries, and this former corporate manager learned the satisfaction of mastering several new skills, including hiking on rough terrain and using a handheld GPS unit.
Affordable housing is a national issue, but there are unique challenges on an island. In 2007, HOMESTART’s proposal to consider housing within the village as an affordable alternative drew strong opposition.
The limited stock of available island housing-attractive to off-island buyers looking for summer places-is often too expensive for year-round islanders, particularly first-time homebuyers or young families. One property recently sold to an off-island buyer despite two close bids by island families with children; a reminder that young families-the lifeblood of an island community-are often forced by unforgiving circumstances to live off-island. The Peaks Island’s school serves about 50 children, but only through the 5th grade; after that, they board attend classes in Portland.
Mary has been working with Planning Decisions, Inc., on a housing needs assessment, interviewing families about their views on island housing. Affordability is more difficult to gauge in a place where income often comes from multiple jobs and sources. The one-on-one interviews offer a clear picture of people struggling to meet expenses and of young island families unable to buy their first home.
Mary relishes the chance to meet folks in these interviews. Unlike most Island Fellows, who are fresh out of college or graduate school, she has had several different, successful careers before coming to the Island Institute. One of her favorite positions was as a residence director at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she and her husband lived in a residence hall with 88 students, 12 of whom were non-traditional, older adults.
It is the strong sense of island community that Mary will always carry with her. “Throughout my life, I’ve always made time for volunteer work in various causes, but there was always a clear separation between my life and work, and my volunteer efforts. On Peaks and Cliff islands, the spirit of community is always present, as when someone offers a ride to town to a stranger, or when neighbors help care for someone in need. It’s an attitude of common purpose that I hope I never lose.”
She notes that young island children-who ride the ferry, attend a small school, and frequently interact with adults in ways that mainland children cannot-are exceptionally friendly and inquisitive.
There are many residents over the age of 90 who walk regularly (and briskly) to all their island destinations, setting an inspiring standard of independence. At church suppers, community members of all ages and interests gather with homemade food and lively conversation, and there is never a shortage of help to take down the tables and wash the dishes.
Mary and her husband would welcome another year on the island if arrangements could be worked out. He was able to pick up a 20-foot sailboat, offered free of charge on a neighbor’s lawn, and has plans to explore the inlets next summer. As for Mary, she is eager to continue her work on affordable housing issues, hoping to remain “in community” for a while longer. These days, the way of life she wants to preserve is her own.