GARDINER — A longtime volunteer and a performing arts center are this year’s recipients of the Kennbec Valley Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award.

Carolyn Neighoff, 61, of Augusta, and the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner will be honored at the chamber’s annual awards banquet on Jan. 27 at the Augusta Civic Center.

Peter Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Neighoff is the perfect choice because of her rich past in the community.

“She was the originator of the Bread of Life and soup kitchen that’s now a much larger organization,” Thompson said, “and she’s done so many things through her career as a schoolteacher to teach young people how to become givers themselves.”

At 20, Neighoff opened a downtown Christian bookstore in Augusta and began the Bread of Life soup kitchen and homeless shelter. She earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Maine at Orono and a master’s degree in leadership at the University of Maine of New England. She coached Cony High School field hockey and boys tennis and was Maine’s 1997 Phys Ed Teacher of the Year.

Neighoff also was assistant principal at Cony and principal at Farrington Elementary School. Now she’s a service learning coordinator for Augusta schools.

“This award is very humbling,” she said. “I don’t do what I do for awards, but if it helps make other people aware of community service, then I’m happy to receive it,” Neighoff said. “So many people do so much, so I’m sort of accepting this award for those who give back to the community. There’s nothing I’ve ever done by myself.”

The grandmother of four said she started a K-Kids Club at Farrington to make community service part of the school’s culture.

She said the club is under the umbrella of the Kiwanis. It participates in Day of Caring events, sponsors an annual blood drive, and every month provides volunteers for the soup kitchen.

“Right now I’m working half time in the school system, helping teachers institute service learning, which has a community service component to it,” she said. “For instance, I have a group of kids who work around bullying here at Cony and another group working on homelessness and hunger; and I have a group working on abused animals.

“We pick social issues and learn about them and then teach the kids how to give back in some way. I love doing that.”

* For 60 years, the other recipient of the award, Johnson Hall, was a center for vaudeville, plays, concerts and lectures. It was a movie theater until 1959. In 1989, a local group bought the building and created a nonprofit organization to preserve history and promote arts.

Judy Lloyd, 61, executive director of Johnson Hall, said the center offers professional shows and children’s programs for 7,000 guests each year. She said a restored 110-seat space on the first floor also is rented out to community groups.

Lloyd will receive the award on behalf of the performing arts center, which she called a “group effort.”

“We’re very excited,” Lloyd said. “It’s a wonderful organization. The board of directors and the many volunteers make Johnson Hall what it is.”

Thompson said the hall has become an active purveyor of the arts in many different forms. He said it provides an opportunity for young people and adults alike.

“They do big things for the community during the Whatever Festival, which encompasses the whole region,” he said. “They’ve just been very giving, and they’re pursuing this dream of restoring this big theater upstairs.”

Lloyd said the organization has plans to renovate the 1864 Water St. building that include converting the upper floors into a 360-seat theater and conference center.

The hall will continue to enrich peoples’ lives while serving as a cultural and economic catalyst, she said.

“It’s great time for us to get this award and become more known in the region,” she said. “The arts is a vanguard of development. It creates liveliness and vitality and renews downtowns.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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