The idea, according to those who were here at the time, came from a staff member of the Island Institute (publisher of The Working Waterfront). In aiming to expand its work in Maine’s 15 unbridged island communities, a brainstorming session gave birth to a simple, but profound concept. What if the Institute created a version of the famous federal Peace Corps program? Fifteen years ago, that’s just what the nonprofit did, launching its Island Fellows program.

This newspaper has always strived to be an independent voice, and so we consciously avoid tooting the Island Institute’s horn. But we’ll make an exception here, and hope you agree that it’s warranted.

This fall, the 100th Island Fellow was placed on one of those 15 islands: Swan’s, Frenchboro (Long Island), Great Cranberry, Little Cranberry (Islesford), Isle au Haut, Islesboro, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Matinicus, Monhegan, Cheabeague, Great Diamond, Long Island, Cliff and Peaks. There wasn’t a fellow on each island each year, but 10-12 served one- and two-year fellowships, taking on a variety of work. That work ranged from settings like the island municipal office, school, historical society, library, land trust, community and health care center and joined with or expanded programs in agriculture, energy, marine research, arts and affordable housing.

In later years, the program was broadened to include non-island settings that matched the Island Institute’s mission of also serving remote coastal communities. Recent and current fellows have been working in St. George, Deer Isle and Machias. This fall, one will work on four different islands (see our story on island eldercare in this issue).

Key to the success of the program is islander input; islanders apply for a fellow to meet the local need they want addressed, residents get to interview potential fellows, and if they don’t believe the applicant will be a good fit, it’s a no go. The fellows are paid stipends and living expenses (with support from the federal AmeriCorps program since 2006), and islanders often help find a place for them to live. The fellows are all recent college grads, but there is no upper age restriction on applicants.

The 15th anniversary of the program has inspired some reflection here. A summer intern researched where past fellows have gone, and compiled some interesting information about what they’re doing today. Over 20 are doing government or public service work; 17 are in education; 15 are doing scientific research or study; almost a dozen are in business.

At a luncheon marking the end of several fellowships earlier in the summer, “best moments” were shared, and they gave further insight. The fellow on Swan’s Island, a week after landing there, recounted helping a friend’s father—who is in his mid-80s—find an ATV he lost in the woods. It took three days to find it, and was recovered by another search “team,” but she had learned how islanders pitch in to help each other.

Another, serving on Islesboro, remembered wondering if she were really helping. While pondering that concern, a knock on the door brought an answer. A man she barely knew had come to ask for help finding educational and behavioral resources for his son.

Still another, on Peaks Island, reflected on working with islanders on their Martin Luther King Day food drive and gathering 600 pounds of food and $1,000 and helping organize a weatherization week “that turned into a month, which then turned into two months,” resulting in 106 island homes weatherized.

Regular readers of The Working Waterfront also have glimpsed the work of Island Fellows through the Reflections column, which rotates among the group and usually appears on this page (we gave the seven new fellows, who are just landing on their islands, this month off, but look for the column next time).

And you also may have read the wonderfully personal and thoughtful essays about island life by Megan Wibberly, who served as a fellow on Isle au Haut, and the quirky, funny oral history work that Kate Webber wrote about on Swan’s Island.

It’s not always an idyllic life on a pretty Maine island; the fellows struggle with loneliness, isolation, fitting in, being accepted and being effective in their brief tenures.

But we’ll let Wibberly’s account of the goodbye she got from the island’s oldest fisherman be the last word:

“I’m going to be mighty disappointed to see you go. You brighten up everyone’s day. Don’t think you can run away and never come back. We insist you come back. You’re welcome anytime. You’re a great person and we’re lucky to have had you.”

And that heartwarming statement was all it took to remind me that I’m not being replaced, that my relationship with these people and this community isn’t being eliminated. It’s just changing. And that’s OK.

“And now don’t go getting all sad on me—I still want to see that smile whenever you walk by. Chin up! Keep smiling! And come visit!”