Raychel Coombs

Photo by Gregory Rec

Raychel Coombs began homeschooling her children about three and a half years ago, after a high-risk pregnancy with her fourth child prevented her from working. When other Augusta-area parents started worrying about their children’s education during the COVID-19 pandemic, they turned to Coombs.

“When the whole pandemic broke out, parents were calling up in a panic, like ‘Oh my gosh, I think my kid’s falling behind,’ ” said her husband, Jason Coombs, “and she’d say, ‘First thing, take a deep breath, I’ll help you with what you’re doing.’ ”

Coombs, 34, studied education at the University of Maine at Augusta. When working parents started asking Coombs if she would homeschool their children, she happily obliged, only accepting money to help cover basic expenses, such as food for the kids.

For Kristen Collier of Oakland, that service has been invaluable.

Collier and her husband had always wanted their children to have a homeschooling experience, but both work full-time jobs.

“I was at my wits’ end,” she said about when she looked for help on Facebook. “Raychel came out of the woodwork. We went to meet her at a homeschool co-op place and sat down with the other moms and just talked, and it felt like home.”

Coombs has “provided much support to many families throughout these tumultuous times,” her husband said.

And the response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. She’s getting more requests than she’s currently able to take on, but hopes soon to purchase a 15-passenger vehicle and potentially hire an assistant to help. Eventually, she may turn her services into a business, but for now, it’s a lifeline she provides to parents like Collier.

“How do you put a value or a quantity on a service for your children? It’s impossible. They’re the most important thing in the world, and giving them the education and life experience that you’ve always wanted for them while I can still earn a living for my family? I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Collier said.

– By Chris Bouchard

Gary Dolloff

Photo by Gregory Rec

Taking the extra step is what Gary Dolloff, 56, is known for in the Rumford community. That’s taken on a more literal meaning this year, as he runs 2,132 miles to raise money for Operation Reboot, an organization dedicated to helping veterans assimilate back into society.

Originally, Dolloff, who is an Army veteran, challenged himself to run the year – 2,021 – in miles, asking for a dollar a day, but he decided to add 111 miles, to match the distance to Austin, Texas, where his daughter lives.

Dolloff, who manages the Greater Rumford Community Center, is also known for dressing up to put smiles on people’s faces, whether he’s going as Batman for children’s birthday parties and events or as Santa Claus to hand out gifts during the holidays.

In an effort to boost morale during lockdown last winter, Dolloff donned his famous Santa outfit and kayaked across the town softball field after it had flooded during a night of heavy rain.

“Whenever there is someone in need, Gary is there, rallying the community to support them. Age, race, gender, name, circumstance … it doesn’t matter,” said Aimee Thibodeau, Dolloff’s cousin.

Dolloff was one of 13 children born and raised in Rumford. His grandmother’s kindness towards others, including him and his siblings whom she raised after their mother died, inspired him throughout his childhood, and he felt called to carry on her legacy after a work accident, in which he was exposed to toxic fumes, made him reconsider his priorities.

“I decided that I wanted to help more people. I wanted to make a difference,” Dolloff said. “Make my life mean something.”

Dolloff has organized fundraisers that have provided over 2,600 gallons of oil for homes during the winter. He has established himself as a mentor for youth in the community, providing them with job opportunities, memberships to the local gym and, more generally, something he thinks is fundamentally missing in the younger generation.

“Today’s kids don’t have the same benefits I had growing up as far as getting to see respect a lot. I demand respect, and I respect them back,” he said. “My biggest (reward) that I get out of this whole thing is that I want these kids to see me as something they would like to attain later as far as helping out and paying it forward.”

– By Joaquin Contreras

Paul Dupuis

Photo by Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Paul Dupuis, 78, of Poland, can appreciate a tough living situation. When his house burned down in February 1972, it left him, his wife and three young children destitute.

“I stood out in the street and cried like a man,” said Dupuis. But with the help of friends who put them up, he was able to keep his family afloat.

A Navy veteran who has never forgotten the service of others, Dupuis retired in 2007 and has since dedicated his life to helping others. He volunteers at Androscoggin Home Healthcare and Hospice in Lewiston, doing just about anything the nurses ask him to do, from cooking and physically feeding patients to sitting and comforting them during their final moments.

“He never fails to step up, often before even being asked. Paul’s authenticity, selflessness and compassion are sure to make a positive impact on those he meets,” said Rachel Bishop, the organization’s events and sponsorship coordinator.

Veterans in hospice are honored with a military pinning ceremony, something Dupuis proudly arranges, presenting them with two flags: one from their branch of the military and an American flag.

Dupuis also works with bereaved families, conducting group counseling during their loved one’s illness and checking in on them after their death. He began to volunteer regularly seven years ago after caring for a close friend who had colon cancer.

“There’s no such thing as getting around it,” Dupuis said. “You have to work your way through grief. It’s one of those things that’s lifetime, you have to learn to live with it. ”

Dupuis also drives a transportation van for Disabled American Veterans in Lewiston and hands out toys to children during the holidays. He designs and builds furniture that he sells at auction and donates the proceeds to the hospice house to cover treatment for patients who aren’t insured. All of it leaves Dupuis with profound satisfaction.

“I don’t know if there’s any words to describe that. It makes me feel like I’m 7 feet tall, yet it makes me feel very weak, very humbled,” he said.

– By Joaquin Contreras

Ernest Merritt III

Photo by Gregory Rec

In the months after Ernest Merritt III of Saco injured his back on the job at Bath Iron Works, he wasn’t sure how to go on. He endured multiple surgeries, started wearing a corset brace to stand and tried to fathom living with chronic pain.

Then he found the Chronic Pain Support Group of Southern Maine and a group of people who truly understood the challenges he lived with every day.

“It was unbelievable that other people could still have their life despite their pain,” he said.

For the past 13 years, Merritt, now 57, has facilitated that support group, offering support to others learning to thrive despite chronic pain and keeping people connected online through the pandemic. He attends medical appointments with members and works with medical students and researchers at the University of New England to help them understand chronic pain. And he has become an advocate in Maine and nationally for changes in the medical system and better treatment for people living with pain.

“His greatest asset is he’s such a great role model for acceptance. He has accepted that he will probably always have chronic pain, but he hasn’t let that define him,” said Susan Gold, who started the support group. “He sends the message that, even if your life isn’t perfect, even if you have to live with chronic pain, you can still make a contribution and make an impact in other people’s lives.”

After he was injured, Merritt discovered his talent for carving ornate and colorful wooden canes, which he gives to people in the support group and to Saco’s oldest citizens.

“One time he said his goal was to help someone every day. And he does,” Gold said. “There’s probably not a day that goes by when Ernie doesn’t do something for someone else.”

Merritt wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We can live and give back to our community,” he said. “This is not the end, this is the beginning.”

– By Gillian Graham

Balqies Mohamed

Photo by Gregory Rec

Balqies Mohamed has always had an interest in social justice and making sure students’ voices are heard.

During her sophomore year at Deering High School in Portland, she started the Muslim Student Association, an interfaith group with goals around equity, community and human rights. She also has served as a youth engagement partner and leader for Portland Empowered, which works to make sure underrepresented groups have a say in school policy.

And last winter Mohamed, 17, and other young people from her mosque, the Islamic Society of Portland, applied for and received a $10,000 grant to start a youth leadership program for adolescents and teens ages 12-15.

“I think of myself as a very ‘yes’ person,” said Mohamed, now a senior at Deering. ” ‘Do you want to do this?’ ‘Yes!’ I’ve just come to get a lot of opportunities like that, and it’s not even the leadership aspect of it (that motivates me). It’s just that thing really fulfilled me and made me feel good about myself, and I want to keep doing it.”

Through the Muslim Student Association, Mohamed advocates for social justice, not just in her immediate community but also on a broader scale. Students in the group made and are selling T-shirts to advocate against the persecution of the Uyghur people in China. They’re also brainstorming events with speakers to address issues like Islamophobia and the struggles of being a refugee.

Since receiving the grant, Mohamed and other members of her mosque’s youth board developed a curriculum and have started working with younger teens on leadership skills.

“We thought that was a big need, especially coming out of the pandemic and all the isolation that has been happening,” Mohamed said. “It’s supposed to make it fun.”

Leah Dixon, site coordinator for Make It Happen!, a college readiness program at Deering in which Mohamed participates, said she’s impressed by how much Mohamed has done both at her school and in the broader community to create safe spaces for students.

“She has such strong interpersonal skills,” Dixon said. “She’s a delight to be around and the fact she does so much on top of that is incredible. It’s an honor working with her because I feel like she’s going to change the world.”

– By Rachel Ohm

Cassie Moon

Photo by Gregory Rec

Growing up Down East, Cassie Moon’s family didn’t have much. Her father dug clams, picked potatoes and cut wood for a living. He also cleared snow for elderly neighbors and taught the younger ones how to garden. Her mother, who worked at a woolen mill, was the person everyone sought out to nurse injured wildlife back to health.

“I learned the joy of giving from my parents,” said Moon, 60, of South Portland. “My parents never had a lot of money, but they always did for others. Compassion was just part of our upbringing.”

Doing for others remains a focus of Moon’s life, often accomplished with a needle and thread, a skill she acquired in 4-H sewing classes.

“Cassie Moon has enriched the lives of so many Mainers by caring through compassionate action,” Theresa McCarthy said of her friend.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Moon has sewn over 1,000 masks to help Mainers stay healthy. Many of them were donated to local nonprofits such as Catholic Charities Maine and the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

Since 2000, Moon has made more than 50 quilts and fleece blankets for Project Linus, which provides them to children of all ages who are sick, grieving or in crisis. Some blankets have gone to neonatal intensive care units.

“As somebody who had a baby in the NICU, I can tell you, just knowing people out there care is important,” said Moon, who is married and has an adult son.

In 2009, Moon found herself laid off at the holidays. So she organized Christmas Stockings for Sweetser, a yearly drive to benefit the mental health agency’s residential youth program. With help from friends and donors, Moon has provided nearly 400 stockings filled with age-appropriate gifts.

“I’ve always found, if you can give something back, no matter how bad your situation is, it makes you feel better,” said Moon, an IT specialist.

She’s also a volunteer coordinator with Greater Portland Family Promise, a faith-based group that provides shelter, meals and other assistance to homeless and low-income families, including asylum seekers and other immigrants.

Moon recently helped a woman and her five children newly arrived from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the woman was filling a prescription, Moon asked if she could purchase some candy for her children. The woman agreed and asked if she might request a few things for herself.

Moon bought the woman shampoo, mouthwash, body lotion and chewing gum.

“The woman was tearfully happy,” Moon said. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to make someone’s day.”

– By Kelley Bouchard

Claudette Ndayininahaze

Photo by Gregory Rec

During the course of her work with immigrant families, Claudette Ndayininahaze occasionally comes across teenagers who arrived here with no place to stay, lost their housing or were simply couch surfing until they could get their lives together.

Ndayininahaze has given many of them a temporary home, a warm meal, and – if they needed it – “a little kick in the pants,” said Kimberly Simmons, who met Ndayininahaze while they were working on a joint project for the Maine Initiatives foundation and In Her Presence, a group Ndayininahaze co-founded that helps immigrant women and their families.

The act of taking in a stranger in need is admirable in itself, but it also illustrates Ndayininahaze’s less tangible attributes: empathy, character and leadership.

“Claudette is known to be the mother who will help all children, whose home is safe and warm, and her advice is spot-on,” Simmons said. “She is the person who steps in to help, actively and directly, rather than the person worrying from the sidelines.”

Ndayininahaze, 56, a native of Burundi and Westbrook resident, is executive director of In Her Presence and serves on the board of the Good Shepherd Food Bank. She is considered a leader in Portland’s immigrant community for her work connecting new arrivals with the support they need not only to survive here, but to thrive. People who work with her call her an expert problem solver who has a huge network of connections and still remembers everyone she meets and genuinely cares about them.

“She really is someone who is working for her community all day, every day – every waking moment, and I think when she wakes up in the middle of the night,” said Mary Faulkner, who works as an English teacher for In Her Presence.

Ndayininahaze said it is “part of my blood” to support people’s strengths and help them empower themselves.

She said that over the years she has learned that without confidence people cannot achieve their goals, that leadership is a process, and that to build community, people from all backgrounds need to work together so they can learn from one another.

‘The minority who don’t really have the power, they need to be at the table to be a part of the decision-making,” Ndayininahaze said. “Then change can come.”

– By Meredith Goad

Sally Ng

Photo by Gregory Rec

Sally Ng lives her life true to a Chinese proverb: “A neighbor near you is better than a far-off relative in times of need.”

That’s especially true when you’re a newcomer in an unfamiliar land. Ng, 73, was born in Beijing, China, grew up in Taiwan and arrived with her family in Portland more than 30 years ago after living in many other U.S. cities. When she settled in Maine, there were so few people who looked like her, she often introduced herself when she saw them on the street, just to say hello and ask if they needed or wanted anything.

Since then, she has become the human core of Portland’s Chinese-American community, which now numbers several hundred. In addition to her hospitality, she helped establish Chinese language lessons in Portland and served as a court translator.

“After all these years, she continues to be someone who reaches out to new Asians, and mostly people from China, who come here,” said Gary Libby of the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine, which Ng helped establish. “She really is the heart-and-soul of the local community, because she reaches people on a personal level.”

Ng and her husband, Ah-Kau Ng, who taught immunology at the University of Southern Maine, have opened their spacious Bowdoin Street home in Portland’s West End to newcomers, exchange students and others, housing them during their studies and residencies and hosting huge feasts during holidays, sometimes feeding as many as 50 people at Thanksgiving.

“There were a few years no one invited us, and we felt so lonely. I want other people to not have that feeling. I want them to feel a home away from home,” Sally Ng said.

One of those people was a student named Wei Zheng, who left China for Portland 28 years ago, but was routed to Portland, Oregon, instead, and spent many hours uncertain of his fate, scared in a new world where he knew no one. “Luckily, I was picked up by Sally and her husband, Dr. Ng, in the airport (in Portland, Maine),” he wrote in an email. He ended up living with the Ngs for two years.

The couple’s hospitality is inspired by the welcome they’ve received here, which they never felt more strongly than during Stop Asian Hate rallies in Portland to denounce hate crimes against Asian people.

“Being kind is what we can do in return,” Sally Ng said, embodying the spirit of the proverb that guides her.

– By Bob Keyes

Linda Rideout

Photo by Gregory Rec

Many people know Linda Rideout from her jobs in local pharmacies, in the grocery store and as a substitute teacher at Marcia Buker Elementary School, but others know her better for the work she doesn’t earn a paycheck for – leading a weight loss group in Gardiner, helping out at a gym for kids, checking in on her elderly neighbors and arranging meals for families in need of support.

“She does everything for everyone else,” said her daughter, Danielle Roderick. “She thinks it’s a natural thing to do.”

Rideout, 67, lives in Richmond with her husband, Daniel, with whom she has two children and two grandchildren. She served as a Girl Scout leader for her kids when they were young, and now volunteers at her daughter’s business, The Sensory Gym in Farmingdale, because she enjoys being around children.

“Kids gravitate towards her,” said Patty Pinney, a friend of Rideout’s daughters. “There’s just no end to what she would do for people.”

Those people include her elderly neighbors, whom she regularly checks in on, including before and after storms, making sure they have water and their driveways are plowed. She also brings them homemade baked goods.

Rideout enjoys cooking for people, and when there is a funeral or similar event in the community, Roderick said her mother is the one who organizes food for the family afterwards.

“I’ve always believed in what comes around goes around,” Rideout said, despite the hardships she’s faced.

Two years ago, Rideout had a close call with cellulitis and necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating disease. After spending 32 days in the hospital and having surgery for two days back-to-back, Rideout lost her right calf. She now uses a rollator to get around and to continue to help others.

“I’m not going to let it hold me back,” she said.

– By Haley Hersey

Kyle Warnock

Photo by Gregory Rec

Ophelia Hu Kinney calls Kyle Warnock “community glue.”

The creator behind the popular Instagram page, Queers of Greater Portland, Warnock, 23, knows how it feels not to have a resource to go to or to be the only queer person in his community.

So when the pandemic brought his normally busy life as a full-time student working multiple jobs to a standstill, he pulled out an old camera and set out with a half-formed idea for a COVID passion project, taking photos and meeting new people. A year and a half later, Queers of Greater Portland has grown from a fun Instagram page featuring photos of local LGBTQ people to becoming a community of its own.

The Instagram page has almost 2,500 followers, and there’s now a Facebook page and a website too. Beyond sharing photos and stories, the page serves as a resource for finding and highlighting LGBTQ businesses, health care providers, politicians and creators. The group has hosted camping weekends, game nights and even a foraging walk.

People have made friends and love connections through the page, some have even found jobs, said Warnock, who lives in Portland and works as an American Sign Language interpreter. But more than anything, there’s a sense of validation and comfort that he said comes from seeing people who look like them and are living nearby.

Queers of Greater Portland made Donna Ekart realize how expansive the community really is, something she said has been a comfort. The page came about “at a time when people really needed a kind and open and wholesome thing to smile at,” she said. “It’s an easy way to connect to other human beings and feel safe, appreciated and loved.”

Hu Kinney agreed. The internet has been a vital place for queer and transgender people to find community when living somewhere that isn’t easy to do, she said. Queers of Greater Portland has been that vehicle locally.

Something “born out of (Warnock’s) desire to get to know people and a personal desire for friendship and connection … has turned into this outpouring from the riches of the community that he has discovered,” she said.

– By Hannah LaClaire


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