by Nori Gale
What Community Means if You’re a New Englander
In a 2005 interview, Michael Carlton, the editor of Yankee Magazine, spoke on the identity of New Englanders. His insights on the particular character of the region are remarkably enduring sixteen years later. He writes, “We are more reserved, but more genuine. Friendships are often fleeting in the fast-growing South and West, but in slow-growth New England, they are as solid as New Hampshire granite… We are prideful. Slower to change. Less adaptable. Surer of our values. Rooted in our history.”
To what can these traits be attributed? What makes living in New England, and in particular living in Maine, unique? Possibly a combination of living through harsh winters, and a history of farming and fishing trades contribute to our character. Facing the elements head on and surviving them is just what we do here in Maine. The backbone of our survival is the strong sense of community that is evident in every Maine town from the Northern potato-farming county of Aroostook all the way down to the coastal Southern fishing towns of York County. Whether your neighbor’s car is stuck in a sheet of slippery snow or your friend one town over has lost her power in an ice storm, or it’s all hands on deck during the harvest, a Mainer's first instinct is to lend a hand. When a key member of a farming or fishing family is incapacitated, neighbors fill in for them, supporting each other through every hardship.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Maine, what we experienced across our state was neighbors helping neighbors and community leaders raising a hand and asking how they and their businesses could help.
Facing a Pandemic Together
In March of 2020, when much of the US began to lock down because of COVID-19, and many of us moved to working from home, we had no way of knowing how long we would have to wait before we could resume our normal lives. Even as biotech firms worked furiously to produce a vaccine, we learned to curb our expectations for a return to normal. Traditionally, it has taken five to ten years to design new vaccines. We knew we might be forced to stay in this strange new way of life for the long haul.
Instead, scientists and health workers pulled off an astonishing feat. The first COVID vaccination shot in the United States was given to a woman named Sandra Lindsay, a critical-care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York in December of 2020. Only eight months had elapsed since the lockdown began. This first shot kicked off the most urgent mass inoculation campaign since the polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. The US had never undertaken such a large vaccination effort in the middle of a pandemic -- we were in uncharted territory, and there were times when Governors and state leaders were left fending for themselves. The governor of Maine, Janet Mills, was a model for how to organize a vaccination effort with little guidance from the federal government. She worked tirelessly with Maine’s CDC Director, Dr. Nirav Shaw, to keep Mainers regularly apprised of Statewide efforts to shepherd us through this difficult historical moment.
How COVID-19 Vaccines Made Their Debut
The first COVID shots administered in the US were developed by Pfizer Inc. and were initially shipped to 55 sites across the country with healthcare workers first in line to be inoculated. Fast forward to the present day and we now have hundreds of thousands of sites across the US giving shots around the clock. Since Sandra Lindsay first offered up her arm for inoculation, the field has expanded to include shots produced by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. In Maine, Shaw and Mills have overseen the nation's leading inoculation effort with over 42% of the state’s 1.3 million residents having now been fully vaccinated and a steady stream continuing to get inoculated every day. Over 50% of Maine residents have now received at least one dose of the vaccine to date.
Nationwide, more than half of US adults have been given their first shot of the vaccine and health care workers across the country have administered more than 200 million doses. Every person age 16 and older in the US is now eligible for a vaccine.
Despite the miraculousness of these figures, the production and dispersal of vaccines has been a bumpy ride at times. State governments faced tremendous logistical conundrums with very little guidance or aid from the federal government. There has also been an ongoing challenge to provide clear messaging to ensure confidence in the shots, according to public health experts. Public trust in the vaccine remains an onerous and stubborn issue as we near a point when those who are eager to be vaccinated have been able to do so and those who are skeptical of the vaccine continue to resist public pressure to receive the shot.
How Maine Handled COVID-19 Vaccine Logistics
On February 3, 2021, Southern Maine opened its first COVID vaccine site at Scarborough Downs, a 500-acre former harness racing venue. The 30,000-square-foot facility provided the necessary space for a safe and efficient vaccination clinic and thanks to the efforts of 42 local companies the clinic was set up in just 15 short days. Crossroad Holdings was helping to redevelop the grandstands and worked with other local businesses to retrofit the facility for MaineHealth.
On opening day, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Maine business leaders and State government officials, over 100 people were vaccinated with plans in the works to ramp up to 1,500 to 2,000 vaccinations per day at the facility, based on supply.
During the ceremony, MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron shared his vision of collaboration, “Today’s opening is really all about community partnerships and the intense desire Mainers have to take care of their fellow Mainers. We hope that at some point, upwards of 300,000 Mainers will receive a vaccination by walking through that front door. That’s the scale we’re trying to accomplish.” Caron was expressing in his words how CEOs from Maine companies, including WEX and Unum, rallied together to help accelerate the vaccination process.
In describing the undertaking, WEX CEO Melissa Smith, who was born into and raised by a Maine farming family herself, said, “It’s probably the biggest call to action in my lifetime.” She and her colleagues from other large Maine companies knew they were needed. Their calling was to help protect as many Maine citizens as possible and help Mainers move beyond COVID back to a safer and freer way of life.
Once Smith made the commitment to participate in getting these vaccine clinics operating she entrusted the project to Jodi-ann Johnson, Director of Corporate Planning for WEX. Johnson is a big part of what makes WEX a special place to work. When a company wants to promote a culture of openness and community as WEX does, having someone like Johnson at the helm of philanthropic planning efforts is a big win.
Johnson was the mastermind for WEX in the COVID clinic operation and brought Smith’s ideas to fruition, collaborating with her colleagues at Unum, Hannaford, LLBean, Idexx, and MaineHealth to help open Maine’s first clinic in February of 2021. Johnson says she is “humbled and grateful to be a part of what I hope is the biggest public health challenge in our lifetime.”
When asked what made the vaccine effort come together so quickly in Maine, Johnson doesn’t mince words. “It’s Mainers helping Mainers - it’s as simple as that.” Johnson knows a thing or two about community aid in Maine: she has been instrumental in WEX’s community outreach and support efforts. All her past work in philanthropic projects prepared her for the demands of the vaccination project, the most monumental and historic effort that she has taken part in at WEX.
What Was the Catalyst for Maine Businesses’ Collaboration with MaineHealth?
In January, the board of MaineHealth came together to discuss plans for the Scarborough Downs clinic. Smith, who sits on the board, saw the plans and immediately surmised that there were ways WEX could help. She suggested that WEX, along with other area businesses provide non-healthcare volunteers to support operations at the new clinic. Partnering with local businesses allowed MaineHealth to skip the volunteer recruitment and background check process and pull from a pool of workers who had already been vetted by their employers.
Smith and executives from Hannaford, Unum, IDEXX and LLBean issued a company-wide call for volunteers. The response was overwhelming. Smith’s instincts were right -- her employees were looking for a way to help; she opened the door, and they came flooding through. Since that first planning session, MaineHealth has been able to fully staff two large-scale clinics with their own employees and the volunteers offered up by their corporate partners.
How Does Volunteering Work at WEX?
At WEX, each employee is given 16 hours of paid time off a year to volunteer. When Smith and her executive leadership team introduced the COVID volunteer program, they also decided to give each employee an additional 40 hours of volunteer time to be used for volunteering at the MaineHealth COVID clinics.
How Does Volunteering Work at the MaineHealth COVID Clinics?
Employee volunteers from WEX, Unum, Idexx, Hannaford, and LLBean were stationed at the Scarborough and Westbrook clinics once the sites were ready to start vaccinating patients. These volunteers continue to be critical members of the clinics’ operations.
Once on-site, volunteers are trained by MaineHealth staff on all the practical lessons for volunteering at a health facility during a pandemic and are also briefed with emotional intelligence training. Richard Veilleux, Program Manager at MaineHealth is a regular contributor at these trainings. To witness Veilleux interact with patients is to see immediately why he was chosen to instruct the volunteers.
At any given point at the MaineHealth clinics, Veilleux might be found at the entryway greeting patients, “Good Morning!” (warm, encouraging voice) “Welcome! Do you have an appointment with us today?” (open, engaging, familiar) “Ok, wonderful! Please step this way, and the first thing you’re going to do is use some hand sanitizer…” (calm, slow, steady)
Observing Veilleux in chunks of time over a few days of volunteering can help one become grounded in what volunteering at the COVID clinic really entails: caring for the humanity pouring through those doors every day.
Veilleux's conversations with and guidance of some of the elderly visitors to the clinic can be especially instructive. At one point, an elderly gentleman entered the clinic without an appointment and was visibly frustrated with the process. Veilleux, sensitive to the man’s anxiety about being left behind, quietly guided him to a side table and walked him through the process of getting into the MaineHealth system. Step-by-step, Veilleux gently helped the patient through the prompts on the appointment automated phone line to get his data into MaineHealth’s system so he could soon be vaccinated.
Veilleux and other members of the MaineHealth staff care for each patient who enters the clinic with grace and kindness. Volunteers, witnessing this standard practice, are quickly schooled on what is expected of them and can carry that torch in the volunteer work they do at the clinic.
Veilleux exhibits a larger culture of MaineHealth. At Scarborough Downs, patients have recognized the high quality of care in the form of colorful sticky notes covering a “gratitude wall.” Poems can be found in this space, comments like, “What a glorious day,” and lines as simple as “Thank you, you are all heroes,” and, “You saved my life today. I will never forget it.”
A Variety of Human Interactions Makes for a Rich Volunteer Experience
Over the course of one greeter shift, volunteers witness a variety of emotional responses from patients whose lives have been substantially altered by COVID-19. There are the jokesters, like one 81-year old gentleman who asked “Where do I place my bet?” There are folks for whom chatter eases anxiety, including a woman in her late 70s who told volunteers that day all about her cats, her journey to get to the clinic, and how much she was looking forward to seeing her grandchildren once she was vaccinated. There are also those visitors to the clinic who are visibly apprehensive and clearly just need to make it through the experience and out the exit as smoothly as possible with minimal small talk.
In some cases, volunteers will spend one shift at the entryway and another shift at the end of the clinic path, where they bid farewell to the newly vaccinated. These folks on their way out the door are different people from those who volunteers meet at the greeter station. Those who have been vaccinated depart with relaxed shoulders and some even have a skip in their step. They radiate calm, happiness, gratitude, and relief, many of them expressing their feelings in their sticky note thank you’s and in spoken form as they head back out into the world.
WEXers Express Gratitude for the Opportunity to Volunteer
WEX volunteers come from all over the organization and bring a variety of perspectives to the experience. People like Maureen McIntyre of WEX’s purchasing department, who has been with the company for 21 years, said of her experience, “Volunteering at MaineHealth has been a great opportunity to help the community in a time of need. I feel very fortunate to work for a company that encourages its employees to volunteer. Knowing I am key in helping make this a success, at the end of the day you leave feeling you did good!” For employees of companies like WEX, the experience is uplifting and fulfilling in a way that only helping others can be.
Cheri Doherty, a ten-year veteran of the company, and a superstar volunteer for WEX has always been willing to raise her hand when there’s a call for help. She says of her recent experiences, “Volunteering at the clinic has been a complete joy. Initially, we were seeing a lot of older Mainers and as a greeter, it was my job to help make them feel at ease, which was really fun and made me feel good knowing I was doing something to help. It makes me proud to be a WEXer to know that through Melissa Smith's leadership we are a company that jumps in and helps when it's important to do so." Doherty, who was born and raised in the Biddeford/Saco area and still calls Saco her home is one example of a lifelong Mainer who is always willing to help those in her community facing adversity.
For Katie DeNoia, a Maine native who’s been on the Corporate Communications team at WEX for five years, volunteering at the COVID clinic was just the opportunity she was looking for, “Volunteering has been incredibly rewarding — it’s given me a chance to support and connect with my community during a time when many of us have felt helpless and isolated. I’m consistently amazed by the work of MaineHealth and the National Guard, honored to play a small role in safely and efficiently vaccinating Mainers, and very grateful to WEX for the opportunity.” DeNoia has been a regular at the clinic and volunteered in a variety of different ways since the clinic opened.
Frank Douglass, a member of WEX’s Treasury who has worked at WEX for 22 years, spoke about the rewarding work he did at Scarborough Downs, “It was a privilege to volunteer. At the clinic, you could see the relief in people's eyes and hear the joy in their voices as they talked about being able to see children, grandchildren, parents... My parents are in their 80s and often talk about the sense of isolation COVID has imposed. I am so grateful WEX allowed me the opportunity to help my neighbors take an important step toward regaining a sense of normalcy.”
Jesse Cyr, Director of Strategic Partnerships for WEX, who's been with the company for nine years shared some of his experiences volunteering at the clinic: "This was an incredibly well run and efficient operation. I was thoroughly impressed by the organization and the embodiment of the 'many hands make light work' philosophy." Cyr was particularly impressed with the stamina exhibited by the health care staff and the National Guard who appeared tireless in their efforts: "The medical workers are rock stars and absolute warriors. I was there for a little over seven hours and felt tired from the shift, but if the full-time staff and National Guard were tired, you'd never know it. It was one of the most inspiring things I've ever seen, and it motivated me to keep my energy level up the whole time." And overall, Cyr was moved by the experience of helping others during this difficult time for our country, "I will never ever forget this experience, and I thank WEX for organizing it. We have all felt the enormous weight of the past year, and it has been very different and very personal for all of us... The energy I felt in that building yesterday was a big healing energy that I desperately needed... again, just an incredible experience."
Heidi Brilhante, from Accounting, has been a WEXer for 24 years and describes her experience volunteering at the clinic this way, “Volunteering at the MaineHealth Scarborough vaccine clinic has been an inspirational and fulfilling experience. I am proud that WEX decided to devote the energy and spirit of the company toward this effort. I was initially anxious about volunteering, but this is an all-hands-on-deck crisis so I stepped forward to help. I am deeply grateful to have been given this opportunity by WEX and believe I will be changed for the better because of it.”
Charity Hirst, who’s been with WEX for two years and works in Technology Communications talked about how she jumped at the opportunity to get out and volunteer at the clinic. She’s been there multiple times filling different roles but says it’s when she has the chance to work with elderly patients that she most enjoys volunteering, “Escorting elderly patients has so far been my favorite job. They are so very grateful. One sweet lady in her 80s kept asking what my name was, and saying "thank you...thank you for taking care of me." From the volunteers who greet and assist with wayfinding, to the check-in/check-out staff, to the doctor who vaccinated her, and the post-vax observation team - everyone is appreciated and people are not shy about saying so. Everyone at these clinics is smiling, upbeat, and just...happy to be there. You can feel the positive energy and hope in the air. After a very long pandemic year, this has been like a healing balm for my weary soul.”
How Can Each of us Individually Help Get People Vaccinated?
The fight against COVID-19 is not over yet. We have an ongoing need to vaccinate as many people as possible, to keep everyone safe, and to diminish the chances of producing stronger and more insidious variants. By encouraging your friends and family to get inoculated, you can do your part.
It’s a fairly straightforward process to get registered for a vaccination appointment at the Scarborough Downs and Westbrook clinics, but it does require a modern sensibility and understanding of technology. Because getting us all vaccinated involves engaging with people who might not be as technologically savvy, or may have fears about being vaccinated, younger people can do a great service by helping older Mainers get signed up. If you know a neighbor or family member who has not yet received their shot, think about reaching out to them and offering to help. Those of us who grew up with technology and have fully working hearing and vision have no trouble navigating a phone question and response system and can walk friends, neighbors, and family members through the process.
The COVID clinic in Scarborough is open every day of the week except Sundays with appointments starting at 7 in the morning and the last appointment of the day at 6:30 PM. Between the Scarborough Clinic and the clinic in Westbrook, as of last week, MaineHealth has so far provided over 100,000 “shots in arms” in Southern Maine.
How To Get An Appointment for a COVID Vaccine
To be placed on a list to get an appointment with MaineHealth, call 1-877-780-7545 and follow the step-by-step instructions prompted by the voice on the receiving end. Have ready:
- Your date of birth
- Your zip code
- Your phone number
Make sure you provide a number where you can easily be reached because this is where MaineHealth associates will be calling you to schedule your vaccine appointment. You can also register online by visiting https://vaccine.mainehealth.org/.
Gratitude and Maine Pride During Difficult Times
WEX employees have expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to volunteer at the COVID clinic. Employees are grateful to WEX, and to our CEO, Melissa Smith, for being the kind of company and the kind of leader that engages with our community in direct, meaningful ways that make all the difference in getting Mainers through this crisis.
The experience of working at the clinic and witnessing and learning from people like Richard Veilleux and hundreds of his peers at MaineHealth as they deliver care with such kindness and calm gives us all hope and fills WEXers, and Mainers, with pride.
The care we have been able to give, and also benefit from ourselves, during the pandemic serves as a reminder of New England’s culture of care. It is that way of living that Michael Carlton spoke of: a people who are sure of our values and rooted in our history and who live by a strong belief in self-reliance that is only viable when community serves as the backbone.
Wall Street Journal
New York Times
Portland Press Herald