AUGUSTA — A crew of inmates from Kennebec County jail has joined the ranks of volunteers who, after the snow flies, grab shovels and head out into the elements to clear the walkways of city residents who are elderly or disabled.

The Clear Paths and Connected Community program, as well as a related program in which city workers deliver large buckets of sand to elderly and disabled residents unable to get their own sand to spread in their walkways for traction, are both part of efforts, lead by Augusta Age Friendly, to help make sure residents can get out of their homes during the snowy winter months.

The group of shoveling volunteers formed last year to help clear the walkways, paths to mailboxes and oil tanks, and other areas residents need shoveled, though the program is not meant for clearing driveways, roofs, or other large areas. Last year many of the more than a dozen volunteers who volunteered their time to shovel were officers with the Augusta Police Department. A handful of them are still involved, but Sara Grant, chairwoman of Augusta Age Friendly said not as many officers have signed up to shovel this year.

Helping fill the gap in the number of volunteers needed to shovel has been a crew of inmates in the work program at the county jail. Grant said the three-man crew, under the watchful eyes of John Matthews, community services officer at the jail, shoveled out walkways for about a dozen residents last snowstorm, and residents gave rave reviews of both the quality and speed of their work.

“They’ve been exceptional, without them the program would have flopped this year,” Grant said of the assistance from inmates. “I’ve heard nothing but positive things about them; they’ve been amazing. And they get it done so fast.”

The inmates aren’t paid money, but they do get days taken off their sentences, according to Matthews. They get one day taken off their sentence for each day they work in the program, in which inmates also do other work including carpentry, painting, cleaning and landscaping for nonprofit groups, municipalities and schools.

Todd Overlock, 46, formerly of Winslow, who has less than a month left to serve at the jail where he’s spent about three months on a charge of violating probation, said he gets much more out of the work than days off his sentence.

“The best thing is the appreciation people give us, that really drives me,” Overlock said. “It feels really great to give my services to someone who needs it. A simple thank you, or smile, goes a long way, that’s enough for me. It makes you want to do more for them.”

Police Chief Jared Mills, one of the volunteer shovelers both last winter and this winter, said more officers may sign up again to help shovel as the winter progresses; he said they didn’t get word of the need until the week of Thanksgiving. But Mills, who helped connect Augusta Age Friendly with the jail work program, said the inmates have helped fill in. Mills said inmates in the work program have previously done work around the police station, including painting and other upkeep, so he was familiar with their work. He heard they were looking for winter projects and mentioned that to Grant. Mills said they’re shoveling so many walkways that he’s only been called out to shovel one walkway so far this year.

He said he does not believe that having inmates shovel out the walkways of elderly and disabled residents unable to shovel for themselves could jeopardize the safety of those residents. He said the jail has a strict screening process so only certain low-risk inmates can take part in the work program, they’re supervised while they work, and are close to being released from jail already.

“The people selected for these types of programs aren’t the ones you’d classify as taking advantage of the elderly,” Mills said. “I have confidence in jail staff they wouldn’t put somebody in that position.”

June McGillis, 84, who received a sand bucket from the city to use in her walkway so she can get out of her home and to her mailbox and back, said she plans to sign up for the shoveling program, though she hasn’t yet had her walk shoveled out by volunteers in the program. She said she is aware, but has no concerns, that some of the shovelers are inmates.

“No, not at all,” she said of whether she was concerned the shoveling could bring inmates to her yard. “Those people have never bothered me. I’m not like that.”

Grant said residents who sign up to have their walkways shoveled out through the program are told some of the shovelers are inmates.

“I’ve been completely open and honest with everybody that (some shovelers) are from the work program of Kennebec County jail,” she said. “They’re supervised. I, personally, have no concerns. They have to go through a clearance process to even participate. And, as a social worker, I fully believe in rehabilitation and how those kinds of vocational programs can help an inmate improve their outcomes” when they are released.

Jess Quinn, programs coordinator for the county jail, said to take part in the work program inmates must be minimum security prisoners, and all participants must be approved by medical and mental health staff and Sheriff Ken Mason. Inmates who are convicted of a violent crime or sex offense may not take part in jobs outside the jail.

She said many inmates take part in the voluntary program because they’ve done something, in committing a crime, that may have harmed the community, and they want to do something to help in the community.

Matthew Woodcock, 23, of Augusta, who has a few months left to serve on a probation violation charge, said the work program helps teach inmates skills, such as carpentry and landscaping, that they may be able to use after they leave the jail. He said being out in the community shoveling snow is better than being inside the jail where you can’t see the sun, and it’s a good workout.

He also said that it feels good to help others, especially those who appreciate the help.

“They don’t look at us as inmates; they look at it as they need the help, and they look at us as human beings,” Woodcock said.

City parks and recreation workers delivered sand buckets to residents who signed up to get them this week. Elderly or disabled residents are eligible to have one bucket delivered to their homes at no charge.

Bruce Chase, director of parks and recreation for the city, said the intent of the program is not to provide enough sand to cover entire driveways. He said the intent is to get people enough sand so they can put it on walkways, so they have enough traction to get in and out of their homes.

McGillis said her grandson used to help her get sand for her North Street home, but he died this year due to brain cancer.

“After that I had nobody to drive anymore, so I was really up against it, so this helps an awful lot,” she said of having a bucket of sand delivered. “I use it on the walkway so I can get into the house and out to the mailbox. It’s a great help for me.”

To sign up for either program, residents can call Grant at 441-4668, email her at [email protected], or go through Augusta Age Friendly’s Facebook page. She said the group could also use some more volunteer shovelers, who can also contact Grant to sign up to lend a hand.

Grant said Augusta Age Friendly had people at the polls at the last election signing up volunteers for the programs, adding about 40 new participants. She said between the sand buckets and shoveling programs, 135 people are receiving help this winter.

She said she’s observed that publicity about the program, and its spirit of helping neighbors, appears to have prompted others in the city to, on their own, help their elderly neighbors with tasks they may no longer be able to complete on their own.

“The community itself is doing more for its neighbors,” Grant said. “That’s a goal of Age Friendly, reviving the true meaning behind being a community, and helping each other, so everyone can live independently.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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