WATERVILLE — The United Way of Mid-Maine annual fund drive will stress “The Power of Caring” and will use two young children to serve as an example to potential donors.

With about 100 people in attendance, the United Way of Mid-Maine kicked off its campaign at Colby College Wednesday, setting as its goal raising $715,000 by the end of the calendar year.

United Way Campaign Cabinet Chairman Scott Bullock and Colby College Dean of Students Janice Kassman suggested Waterville 8-year-olds Alice Willette and Gabbie St. Peter as examples of “The Power of Caring.” The girls raised more than $40,000 for the George J. Mitchell School food pantry, while inspiring others around the country to do the same.

“Their project has demonstrated the power of caring,” Kassman said. “Their story captured many hearts.”

St. Peter and Willette, along with Kassman, recreated a question-answer session similar to the one the girls had on the Ellen Degeneres television program earlier this year.

“Like, wow, how did this happen?” Alice Willette said Wednesday morning.

In February, the two best friends, whose birthdays are one day apart, chose to have friends donate to the Mitchell School’s new food pantry in lieu of giving them presents at their party. The girls ended up collecting boxes full of food for the pantry, more than enough to stock it for the year. But as news of their endeavor spread, more people joined the cause with former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and Harold Alfond Foundation trustee Bill Alfond, among others, pitching in donations before the Degeneres show caught wind of the story. Altogether, the girls raised $41,550 for the food pantry, which has been renamed the Gabbie and Alice Purple Panther Food Pantry at the Mitchell School. A food pantry also serves the Educare Central Maine school, and a new food pantry is set to open in the Albert S. Hall School next year.

“What came from these girls is still mind-blowingly remarkable,” said Jennifer Johnson, president of the Waterville Parent Teacher Organization. “Kids in Waterville from birth to fifth grade will have food if they need food. This will fund the food pantry until the girls are out of high school.”

Johnson said that since the story broke in February, she’s been fielding calls from other parent-teacher groups and communities across the country interested in starting the same thing, including a class of third graders in Colorado that saved their allowances to donate to a local food pantry and a high school in New Hampshire that opened its own pantry.

“It was two little girls that said we have enough and we want to help someone else for our birthday,” Johnson said. “It’s spread throughout Maine and throughout the country.”

The breakfast event, which celebrated 60 years of the United Way of Mid-Maine, was the kickoff to the nonprofit’s fundraising campaign, according to Ben Sandy, the organization’s fundraising and marketing manager. He said the campaign is already off and running, as $60,000 had been raised before the start of Wednesday’s event. The fundraising goal is an optimistic one, according to Sandy.

“It’s an ambitious goal based on what we’ve raised recently,” he said. “But we think we can raise it. We have a lot of optimism.”

The money raised is used to support programs and institutions in communities in Somerset, northern Kennebec and western Waldo counties, according to the United Way of Mid-Maine website.

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @jessescardina

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