Yesterday, a few dozen people gathered in the parking lot of American Legion Post 19 in Sanford to raise awareness for the many local nonprofits and social clubs that have been forced to close due to the government response over COVID-19.
Speakers included Maine state legislators, Representatives Heidi Sampson of Alfred, Beth O’Connor of Berwick, and Matt Harrington of Sanford, as well as leaders of AMVETS, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and American Legion which serve local military veterans.
Other Sanford-area groups like WABAN, which serves local children and adults with intellectual disabilities, Grahamtastic Connection, which provides access to educational programs through technology to children with cancer and other serious illnesses, and private clubs like the Elks, Springvale social club, Lafayette Club, and the Wolves Club also sponsored the rally and had leaders address the crowd.
Rep. Harrington highlighted the value these groups provide to the community by noting that just within the Sanford/Springvale area, these groups raise and donate about $500,000 per year to local nonprofits through their membership, scholarships, and events.
I spoke with Dan Hathaway, Vietnam War veteran and Post Commander of the Sanford American Legion, about the connection they provide for their members. He described the type of social fabric that his group cultivates by explaining their three-day-check-up policy, where if a member is not seen at the club for three days, they will get a phone call. If that member is unable to be reached, the club will contact the local police department to make sure that person has help if they need it.
Hathaway, as well as Travis Brown, head of the Sanford Wolves club, explained that these clubs function as a safety net for their members before they fall into the state-funded social safety net.
Brown noted that his club and the Sanford Lafayette Club are private organizations that are owned by their members. Each member of the club owns a share. “This is their home,” Brown said of those member-owners. Concerning the legality of Governor Janet Mills’ coronavirus-related restrictions which require them to be closed, he asked the crowd, “can she say that you’re not allowed to go to your home?”
Representative Beth O’Connor, in a fiery speech to the crowd opposite chants of “Open Maine Now,” highlighted the link between a rise in unemployment and a rise in substance abuse, addiction, and suicide. She referenced a recent study by The Wellbeing Trust of Oakland, California projects the state-imposed economic shutdown will result in 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” across the United States.
Organizers of the rally hope that their message reaches Governor Mills, on the day following her third extension of the state’s Civil State of Emergency, which continues the restrictions on the economy until July 10, at which point she is likely to extend it again.
Maine law allows the governor to decide on an extension of a Civil State of Emergency in perpetuity unless ended by a joint resolution of the Maine Legislature. The legislature has been adjourned since mid-March.
Other rally attendees I spoke with mentioned that the numerous stories of businesses permanently closing due to the shutdown had not seemed to alter the Governor’s view of the situation, so they hope that the stories of shuttered local community organizations will persuade her.
A spokesperson for the governor released a statement responding to the message of the rally, touting increases in funding to various state agencies and programs like SNAP that serve seniors and families in need. The administration did not respond to the direct impact of these closed community organizations, noting that the governor understands the impact her restrictions have had on families in the state.
The loss of critical community organizations will likely have an impact felt far beyond the services delivered by state-directed social programs. Local nonprofits create and sustain their communities in ways usually unseen by the public and the media, providing crucial familial and social cohesion for those who lack it. Local community groups across Maine are still unable to open, and the organizers of yesterday’s rally hope to raise their voices and prompt a swift reopening of the Maine economy and society.