Two Decades of Fellows Changes Communities

Advisors who serve as island-based mentors reflect on the program’s success

By Kendra Jo Grindle   

It’s a beautiful coincidence that 2020 is the 20th year of the Island Fellows program at the Island Institute. Twenty years ago, the designers of this program may not have known the level of reach it would have. Fellows came from states thousands of miles away, their projects have touched every layer of an island community, and the power of the program has kept Fellows tethered here long after they take their final ferry to the mainland.

Long-time Vinalhaven Fellows advisor, Kathy Warren, who advised some of the first Fellows, recalls the impact as staying true to the original ideals for the program.

“There have been so many ways that they have given back and contributed to the capacity building of our communities,” she says. “They are community members, leaders, and friends. The contributions that they’ve ended up making to the life of the community, seems to me, are exactly all the things that I remember 20 years ago being the aspirations of when it was created.”

two smiling women sitting on a dock
Former Vinalhaven Fellow Gillian Welch, left, sits with advisor Gabe MacPhail.

Fellows alumni, either from Maine or “away,” are not difficult to find. Taking a moment to look around at the change makers in Maine, you will see past Fellows. Kathleen Reardon (Islesboro, 2000) now serves as the senior lobster biologist for the Department of Marine Resources. Mike Felton supported educational curriculum development on Vinalhaven in 2000, which laid the foundation for his career as superintendent for St. George school system. Ben Algeo, now a legislative aide for the Maine Senate Majority Office, worked to lower energy costs for Monhegan residents in 2014. Fellows who worked at the Island Institute office also have grown in community development skills, furthering the sustainability of Maine’s islands and coast.

The program certainly has had a lasting impact on the Fellows themselves, but what about the communities and leaders the program has also shaped? Twenty years of harnessing the knowledge, professionalism, and relationships of strong community leaders and the richness of remote and rural communities has left its own unique mark.

Gabe McPhail, Vinalhaven’s community development and engagement coordinator and advisor to several Fellows, reflected on the enrichment the Fellows Program has brought to her.

“It’s been a privilege for me personally and professionally to experience someone else’s growth and evolution through their time here. Fellows bring rich, stimulating thought to my life and work—keeping the world and mind open beyond our community,” she said.

She described the systems-thinking approach Fellows bring to the community.

“We recognize that there’s a challenge in the system or a lack of capacity and Fellows come, focus on the project through a new lens, and address our needs alongside us by bringing their own experience to the table. I learn from and with them every time,” she said.

Echoing this sentiment is Donna Damon, who has advised Fellows on Chebeague Island and served as a trustee to the Island Institute when the Fellows program was founded. She described the impact Fellows have had on the school, historic preservation, and educating the community.

“Our community embraces Fellows. We learn from them while they learn from us. Their ability to remain neutral on community matters furthers their work and support.”

Fellows projects require the advisor and Fellow to strategize together towards the sustainability for the work completed over the 24-month fellowship. This sometimes means continuing through a new Fellow or leaving detailed plans for continued use. Occasionally, the work serves as a foundation for continued programming supported by the Island Institute.

portrait photo of Gabe McPhail
“Fellows bring rich, stimulating thought to my life and work.”
—Gabe MacPhail

Anne Bardaglio, who was a Fellow on Matinicus in 2006, laid the groundwork for the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative. Her advisor, and an Island Institute trustee, Natalie Ames, shared her enthusiasm for the program she champions.

“Anne’s project strengthened our small island schools and the students. It connected and supported teachers, showed them ways to be a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and made sure students aren’t repeating content with new teachers,” Ames recalled. “Our students, educators, and communities are stronger and better prepared because of this work.”

The program also builds goodwill for the Institute in island communities.

portrait photo of Donna Damon
“Our community embraces Fellows. We learn from them while they learn from us. Their ability to remain neutral on community matters furthers their work and support.”
—Donna Damon

“For islanders, Fellows changed attitudes towards the Institute. They provided a bridge to the organization’s resources and knowledge that didn’t exist before,” she said. “Their impact is tangible. Fellows are the shining stars, to me, of the Institute. They are human beings on the island, and I can’t think of anything more impactful.”

For all the impact a Fellows’ project can have on a community, they also leave their own personal mark on the lives of their advisors. Kendra Chubbuck, an advisor and fifth-generation Isle au Haut resident, has made lasting relationships with each.

“I get so attached to them and keep in touch after they’re gone,” she said. “I have three brothers, twin sons, and the young women I’ve advised give me something I personally need. I adore them.”

Chubbuck had a moment last year that showed her just how much a Fellow could care for a community they’ve only recently become a part of. Current Fellow Molly Siegel and a friend raised over $24,000 for the local lighthouse by swimming around the island.

“I’m out on the boat watching these women swim in rough, log-filled waters for my community, now their community, and I know I couldn’t do what they’re doing,” she said. “They give me hope for the future of this island, not just because they do the work that wouldn’t get done otherwise, but the energy they bring.”

As we, as an organization and network of communities, pause to reflect on the last 20 years of driven, spirited, mindful Fellows, we see the reverberations their time has left on our landscape. Each advisor tells story after story of a Fellow’s memories and describes how this program has changed them, their communities, and the path for the next Fellow.

When we look ahead to the next 20 years, Kathy Warren has a piece of wisdom for future advisors:

“Listen. Remember we are here to advise and frame the program. We need to trust the instincts of the Fellow brought in to do the work and allow them the space to apply their own creativity to issues and their own observations. They are a blank slate and we often know too much.”

two smiling women in winter clothing in front of ocean
Isle au Haut Fellow Molly Siegel, left, with advisor Kendra Chubbuck.

Kendra Jo Grindle is a community development officer with the Island Institute who served as a Fellow on Islesboro.