Carol Burke leaves an immunization clinic at Brackett Memorial Church on Peaks Island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Reta Morrill got a rousing Peaks Island welcome when she stepped out of the cold and into the warmth of the community hall at the Brackett Memorial Church.

Born and raised on Peaks, 89-year-old Morrill was a fixture at the island market for four decades before COVID-19 made it too risky for her to continue working there as a cashier.

On Sunday, Morrill was one of 130 island elders who got their first shot of the Moderna vaccine during a Valentine’s Day clinic organized by islanders and others, most of them volunteers. They included a group of nurses from the mainland who woke early to ride the ferry from Portland and deliver the vaccine as the sun was rising over an icy gray Casco Bay.

Mary Robbins, left, and Peggy Akers, nurses with Northern Ligh Health, carry gear after getting off the ferry on Peaks Island on Sunday. The two brought vaccines for an immunization clinic on the island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Love and gratitude were bountiful in the well-lit and valentine-decorated church hall, where the seniors gladly rolled up their sleeves to receive vaccine that would be much more difficult to get otherwise. The 25-minute ferry ride can be daunting for frail elders with disabilities and scheduling a vaccination appointment anywhere has been challenging for many people because supply has been so limited.

Just seeing each other after living in isolation for nearly a year was a blessing for many.

“It’s a special day – a monumental day, really,” Morrill said later, waiting in the observation area set up in the church’s sanctuary. She wore a bright red blouse in honor of the day and a stylish white mask with black polka dots. She sat in a pew at the back of the church with Joyce O’Brien, 89, her best friend since childhood, who also was vaccinated.

“I haven’t been off island but twice in the last year because of COVID,” Morrill said. “I have lots of island angels who look out for me, but I miss all the people I saw at the market, so this is wonderful.”

Reta Morrill receives a COVID-19 vaccine Sunday from Dr. Chuck Radis during an immunization clinic at Bracket Memorial Church on Peaks Island. Morrill was born on Peaks Island and has spent only 16 years off island while her husband served in the military. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It was a small but impressive island effort made possible by front-line health care workers from Northern Light Health and MaineHealth, two of the state’s largest health care networks. An even smaller clinic was held Saturday on nearby Long Island, vaccinating 43 people age 70 and older, including 11 who came from Cliff and Great Diamond islands. Follow-up clinics will be held in four weeks to deliver booster shots.

Peggy Akers and Mary Robbins, immunization nurses with Northern Light, boarded the 6:45 a.m. ferry Sunday carrying four large zippered totes full of needles, wipes and other clinic supplies and one small red cooler of vaccine vials. They traveled with Kitty Gilbert and two other staff members of the Peaks Island health clinic that’s operated by MaineHealth.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited,” Gilbert said during the trip over on the Wabanaki. “Everybody on the island has been so isolated because of the virus and they were so happy to hear we were having this clinic.”

The clinic was organized by Marge Powers and Stephanie Castle, retired registered nurses who live on the island, with help from a battalion of more than 20 volunteers.

Judy Nelson talks with Stephanie Castle before the start of an immunization clinic on Peaks Island on Sunday. The two women volunteered to help people fill out their paperwork to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It has been so gratifying to do this for the community,” Powers said. “The people are thrilled and so grateful. There’s been so much anxiety about COVID and how to get vaccinated. Here we are on an island off the coast of Maine and now the vaccine has come to us.”

Dave Powers and Paul Castle, the organizers’ husbands, also retired, spent Saturday chopping ice from the church walkways and all day Sunday giving rides and running errands.

“It’s a wonderful day,” Paul Castle said during one taxi ride. “The gift of life on Valentine’s Day.”

Island elders came in a steady flow from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Younger and more fit septuagenarians easily climbed the few stairs into the community hall. Others walked with canes. Some required help from family members or friends to navigate through check-in and vaccination stations and into the observation area in the sanctuary.

Over 100 people received vaccines at an immunization clinic at Brackett Memorial Church on Peaks Island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It would have been a royal pain for me to get to the mainland, so this is hugely helpful,” said Rick Caron, 73, a retired homebuilder who is blind. “I had been hoping they would do something like this.”

Dr. Chuck Radis, a semiretired rheumatologist who lives on Peaks, was among the vaccinators. He called Sunday’s clinic “historic” and recalled reading newspaper articles about polio vaccination clinics held at the island school in the 1950s.

Another island resident, Dr. Bud Higgins, a semiretired emergency room physician and former chief medical officer at Maine Medical Center, oversaw clinic operations.

“Island trust helps a lot in these situations,” Higgins said. “We know each other. We know who’s frail and who has disabilities and they’re comfortable with us helping them.”

While being monitored for 15 minutes after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, Dave Stankowicz talks with Jill Keefe in the sanctuary area of the Brackett Memorial Church on Peaks Island on Sunday. Many of the islanders who came to the clinic said it was the first time they’ve been able to talk with other islanders since the pandemic began. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Kat Ferrin, one of the island’s many artists, said she’s never been inoculated, other than occasional tetanus shots, but COVID-19 left her no choice.

“I’m kind of up against the wall,” said Ferrin, whose gray dreadlocks flowed from beneath an orange knit hunting cap. “Last summer I felt like a prisoner. I usually go to the beach to paint, but there were so many people there, I didn’t feel safe. It’s been really isolating. With the vaccine, I’m hoping things will go back to normal somewhat.”

Peaks Island has about 860 year-round residents, a population that swells by a few thousand in the summer months, including day-trippers.

Paul Nelson, 75, a retired schoolteacher, was the first island elder to be vaccinated, though he had mixed emotions about getting his shot before Maine’s teachers. Currently, Maine is vaccinating Phase 1A priority groups that include patient-facing health care workers and people age 70 and older.

“It’s wonderful to come to such a local place,” Nelson conceded.

Joyce O’Brien, 89, talks with nurse Peggy Akers prior to getting her COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic on Peaks Island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

State health officials have said they hope to vaccinate two-thirds of the nearly 300,000 Mainers age 70 or older by early March, which would allow eligibility to expand to individuals age 65 to 69, followed by other groups.

Caron Chess, 70, a retired environmental policy professor at Rutgers University, was a volunteer at the clinic and one of the first to be inoculated.

“It’s really the only time I’ve been happy to be 70 and so grateful to be involved in this,” Chess said. “It’s one more indication of how extraordinary the island is.”

Mere Roberts, 82, gave a $2,000 donation to support the island health clinic and Sunday’s vaccination effort.

“There was a lot of energy spent getting us all here today and I appreciate it,” said Roberts, a retired schoolteacher. “Getting to the mainland is difficult for many islanders in the best of circumstances, let alone in the middle of winter during a pandemic.”

Lyndi Brechbuhler, a nurse who works at the Peaks Island health clinic, fills a syringe with Moderna COVID-19 vaccine prior to the start of an immunization clinic at Brackett Memorial Church on Peaks Island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Nancy Stanhope, 77, is one of few fishermen left on the island. She and her husband, Richard Callow Jr., 60, drag for scallops in the winter and work as mooring inspectors for the city of Portland from spring through fall.

“I’m so psyched to get vaccinated,” Stanhope said. “It’s such a relief. I have COPD because I’m a former smoker, so it’s for my protection, but for everyone else, too. The minute I saw the email about this clinic, I called to sign up. In so many ways we need to move on and this is a step in the right direction.”

Brian Tracy throws up pizza dough at Hannigan’s Island Market on Peaks Island on Sunday. The market donated pizzas to volunteers staffing an immunization clinic on the island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Clinic organizers also made sure vaccine was delivered to several homebound island residents on Sunday. That level of compassionate outreach spurred the owner of Hannigan’s Island Market to fire up his pizza ovens early on Sunday – they usually start selling pizza at 3 p.m. – and deliver free lunch to the clinic volunteers.

“They’re actually going to the shut-ins today to give them vaccine,” Bob Hannigan said. “That really touched me. They said they would pay for the pizza, but I told them there’s going to be no money exchanged. It’s my donation to the people of this community.”

Peaks Island residents Lois Tiedeken, Kathy McCarthy, Stephanie Castle and Judy Nelson, left to right, talk about intake paperwork prior to the start of an immunization clinic at Brackett Memorial Church on Peaks Island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The clinic organizers gave much of the credit for Sunday’s success to Peggy Akers, the Northern Light immunization nurse. She’s a former Cliff Island resident who retains a special regard for islanders. Akers hands the credit back to them.

“It’s this community,” said Akers, her red mask dotted with white hearts. “They do all the work. We just come. Every single injection is an injection of hope. I feel like the luckiest person in the world being able to bring that to them. People talk about being able to hug their grandchildren again. People have been isolated for so long, this gives so much hope.”

Correction: This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, to correct the name of Brackett Memorial Church.

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