Island Fellows: A ‘Peace Corps for the Islands’

Fellows reverse Maine ‘brain drain,’ provide extra hands


The board funded the Fellows program in 1998, and the following year the first two hardy souls were placed on Monhegan and in Casco Bay.

It was the kind of blustery January night that was so cold the snow squeaked, but inside the Islesboro Central School gymnasium, the athletes playing basketball were starting to work up a sweat.

The moms, dads, and neighbors sitting on the bleachers stomped and clapped as the Islesboro Eagles boys team began to coalesce and take the lead over the Jonesport-Beals Royals. The home team’s shots arced sweetly into the net. Teenagers wandered around the perimeter of the gym, socializing and buying paper bags of salty popcorn. A wide-eyed baby got handed around the bleachers, getting cuddles and coos from the islanders. And a young woman with long brown hair hunched over the scorebook, ignoring all off-court distractions as she marked shots and fouls for the referees to use later as the official record of the game.

That scorekeeper, Kendra Jo Marsh, is an Island Institute Fellow who has lived on Islesboro for more than a year. The 23-year-old from landlocked Buckhannon, West Virginia, recently graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in human development and family studies. She came to Islesboro to work on a project connecting island families and children to mainland resources, building a database to support islanders’ access to services they need.

“Families don’t come off the island very often for services,” she said. “If families aren’t coming off and providers aren’t coming on, kids start to fall behind.”

Like many of the 102 Fellows who have been placed on Maine’s coastal and year-round island communities in the last 15 years, Marsh has found a multitude of ways to weave herself into the pattern of Islesboro life. The college and master’s degree graduates have served in 21 different communities, among them Islesboro, the 14-mile-long, narrow island in upper Penobscot Bay. There, Marsh teaches country line dancing at the community center to an enthusiastic crowd, most of whom are retirees. She coaches Ultimate Frisbee, works at the “Kidz Club” after-school program, and helps an autistic boy with his homework. And she keeps the books for home and away games, spending long hours on the school bus as the basketball team travels to schools around the state.

Her contributions have been invaluable, said the Islesboro school’s athletic director, Jack Schlottman, who remembers other Fellows from past years also sharing their talents with the island community.

“Would you want to ride seven hours to Eastport and back on a school bus? No!” he said emphatically. “But she does it. She’s doing this stuff people take for granted. The Fellows program is wonderful. We always find slightly different things for them to do.”

Sometimes, he mused, the Fellows don’t leave. And that’s a boon to island communities struggling to keep their populations up.

“They come. They fall in love with somebody, and the island as well, and the next thing you know, they’re here for life,” Schlottman said.

Although the Island Fellows program is carefully structured these days, it wasn’t always so, according to Karen Burns, the community development director for the Island Institute. In the late 1990s, a board member first imagined sending young, energetic college graduates to the islands to address community needs. The board funded the Fellows program in 1998, and the following year the first two hardy souls were placed on Monhegan and in Casco Bay.

“It was an experiment,” Burns said. “Over the years, it’s become a much more systemized program. Before, it was more the idea of an extra set of hands. It’s been a trial-and-error process.”

In 2004, the Island Institute Fellows program became part of AmeriCorps, the national service organization started during the Clinton administration. Now, the graduates accepted into the highly competitive Maine program get benefits such as room, board, a $15,000 annual stipend, and a $5,500 education award after completing their service. They are chosen by both the Island Institute and the community where they will be living and working, and they are assigned a specific project.

Recently, the program has been earning accolades around the country. It won a 2014 Sustainable Homes Index for Tomorrow (SHIFT) Sustainability Award and was featured at the SHIFT festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an annual event that celebrates the future of conservation. Additionally, it was highlighted as an innovative education program in a national publication that showcases AmeriCorps State and Volunteer Generation Fund Programs.

But in the early days, the first Fellows felt like pioneers. “It was definitely a bit of a struggle. They didn’t really know what to do with us,” Kathleen Reardon, a geographic information system (GIS) Fellow on Islesboro from 2000 to 2002, remembered. “They weren’t sure what to expect of me.”

The Rhode Island native, then a 22-year-old graduate of Williams College who loved islands, remembers those first days as being both challenging and rewarding.

“I moved out at the end of October, that time when everyone hunkers down,” she said. “My parents let me have the cat. They said, ‘We have each other. You can have the cat.’ I learned to be by myself. I went on a lot of walks.”

She also spent a lot of time going to all the community meetings she could find, listening to what was said and figuring out ways that she could help. At one cemetery committee meeting, she learned that islanders had just had a report done on arsenic levels in the island wells. Reardon offered to compile that data into a map. It was a hit, and she ended up teaching a couple of GIS classes at the high school and in the adult education program. She continued to go on long walks, collecting more data as she tromped over Islesboro’s fields and through its forests, and made more maps.

Reardon became part of the community, making more friends and pitching in wherever she could. She was an extra set of hands working on the town’s comprehensive plan, and began a lobster sampling project. She listened to the fishermen as they painted buoys and passed the time talking about gear. Along the way she learned much about the island—and a lot about herself.

“I am really close to my family. I have lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles,” Reardon said. “All of a sudden, I was put in a place where I didn’t know anyone. They didn’t know me. I had to learn to listen, see where I could help, and adapt and fit into the community.”

Those skills were important parts of what Reardon and her cohort called “the Maine island Peace Corps.”

“It’s about putting recent graduates into a situation where they have skills that can help, but they aren’t imposing their opinions,” she said. “It made me very flexible. It made me able to talk to almost anyone, and find some common ground.”

Her experiences as an Island Fellow ultimately reaped benefits in her current career as a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“If you ask the wrong questions, the fishing community is very quick to judge,” Reardon said. “On Islesboro, I lived in their community. I taught their kids. I learned how to talk to fishermen.”

Like many of the 102 Fellows who have been placed on Maine’s coastal and year-round island communities in the last 15 years, Marsh has found a multitude of ways to weave herself into the pattern of Islesboro life.
woman with bag of food drive donations

Since the program began, Island Fellows like Marsh and Reardon have worked in libraries, schools, historical societies, town offices, and land trusts. They’ve counted fish, marked storm drains, cataloged books, developed school programs, increased access to affordable housing, assisted in public health services, and winterized drafty island houses. Along the way, they’ve often decided they like island life.

More than half of the Fellows have stayed in Maine, Burns said, and a third still live and work in islands and coastal communities.

“We’re really working as a reverse braindrain for the state of Maine,” she asserted. “We’re bringing in young, bright people who have fallen in love with the state and are staying. It’s been a side effect that we weren’t anticipating but which has really been great for the state of Maine.”

She knows what she’s talking about. Burns, who grew up in suburban Massachusetts, came to Vinalhaven to do a performing arts fellowship at the school from 2003 to 2005.

“I thought this was a one-year adventure,” the bubbly Island Institute staff member said. “I stayed on, became a drama teacher, became the high school English teacher. I stayed for multiple reasons. One was that I fell in love with the school and teaching, and that was not something I intended to do. Second, I fell in love with the community. Thirdly, I fell in love with a generational fisherman. And this is where my life is.”

Experiences similar to Reardon’s have occurred up and down the coast. Joy Sprague, the longtime Islesford postmistress, sounded practically effervescent when she described what the Island Fellows have meant to the Cranberry Islands. At the very beginning, Sprague said she was curious about how the program would unfold for the town of Cranberry Isles. When Marine Stewardship Fellow Jesse Minor and his girlfriend Rebecca Larkin came in 2002 to Islesford, they assuaged any doubts. They jumped right in to island life, with Minor joining the volunteer fire department, organizing a first responder and CPR course, and giving fiddle lessons to the islanders.

“That was just a wonderful experience. They really had the bar raised,” Sprague said, adding that the duo even got islanders to count baby lobsters once a month at low tide in a grid they had set up. “It was amazing. The quality of the work and the energy they put out, bringing people together. Getting people excited about getting out at six in the morning to count lobsters! They not only helped in the lobstering industry, they were also such vital and important members to the community, contributing on so many levels.”

Sprague said that while Maine islands get an injection of life in the summertime, it is particularly nice to have year-round residents.

“They really become part of the fabric of the community, as people who just really get it. They give and also take with them a real vital experience,” she said. “I can’t say enough good words. I commend the Island Institute for seeing this possibility, to be able to look into the future and see that this was something that could be very important, and very valuable to the community.”

On Swan’s Island, Candis Joyce has been advisor and mentor to several Fellows. As the island librarian, Joyce supervised some who worked in the library, and helped others who worked for the historical society

“It’s a great program,” she said. “I think it’s the best thing the Island Institute has come up with. It’s amazing what these young people do.” Though she believes the observation was made by Island Institute founders Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston, Joyce says the best way to describe the value of the program is: “Islanders have no lack of ideas or enthusiasm or vision. We don’t have enough people to get it done.” Fellows bring the energy and dedication to the work.

Joyce notes that not every Fellow is a good fit, but the program is self-selecting in certain qualities.

“I’ve always had fairly self-motivated people here. If they’re not self-motivated, I don’t think they can make it on these little islands,” she said. Still, some arrive nervous, and some arrive very comfortable in the sudden immersion into an insular, isolated community.

“It’s the whole range,” she said. Many with outgoing personalities take on work outside their formal roles, Joyce said, remembering one Fellow whose presence after-hours at the library would bring people in to read and talk. “The mentoring is personally rewarding.”

“I’ve learned as much from the Fellows as they have from me, if not more,” she said. Her only regret is not being able to keep in touch with past Fellows. “I wish I had more contact with them,” naming some of the earlier participants who now have families.

Back at the Islesboro basketball game, many in that island community cheering in the bleachers said they hoped Marsh might like island life enough to stay when her fellowship is done. The islanders have welcomed her, opening their hearts and doors to the girl from West Virginia.

“The community on Islesboro reminds me so much of my community back home,” Marsh said during a break in the action. “The number of people who feed me! People have just taken me in.”

Sprague, the island postmistress, said it’s sad when Fellows leave the Cranberry Isles at the end of their stint—but she loves to see them get off the mailboat when they return to visit.

“It’s like family,” she said. “You miss them when they’re gone. But sometimes living on an island forever is not something that’s going to work out. You just feel very fortunate and very blessed when people do come here and share a little bit of themselves.”

Abigail Curtis lives in Belfast and covers the Waldo County beat for the Bangor Daily News. She spent many happy childhood days on Bowman’s Island and Williams Island in Casco Bay, and worked for a memorable summer on Islesford.