I have been the “Executive Director” of the Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce for 2 years. Before I began, I wasn’t even certain what a chamber does, and why a chamber is important to the communities it serves. Within a certain geographic area, there are communities, and within those communities are businesses. The goal of most chambers is to create a cohesiveness between the residents and the businesses, and even the civic leaders, to provide support so that all who reside and work within that area can function at their highest level, working together to keep business local, while promoting events, festivals, and recreational activities. If businesses have what they need to operate effectively and provide great service, and communities are welcoming, the result should be that more people will want to visit the area, work in the area and perhaps, move to the area. Mostly, it is about quality of life and a healthy economy.
The relationship between a chamber and its members is a unique one. There is a definite expectation for the chamber to provide a “value” equivalent to the membership fee each business pays. This is a difficult task for most chamber directors, because value is perceived so differently across the board. Some businesses need support throughout the year in various areas, while other businesses are happy to be listed on their chamber’s website, and satisfied knowing the chamber is providing referrals. Other businesses become members because they wish to support a chamber-sponsored program which ultimately will have an impact on their success or an overall benefit to their local community. Like I said, value is perceived differently by all.
The other piece that makes this relationship unique is this: if you are a business owner, it is not all about “what the chamber can do for you”, it is also about the fact that your membership fee is an investment into an organization whose sole priority is to make the community or county in which your business resides successful. Sometimes the work we do is not visible, but it is happening. It is happening at the civic level, the state level, and the national level. It is happening though local and state-wide networking and collaborative efforts. It is happening when we work against bills that will adversely affect small businesses. It is happening through small and large scale events to attract visitors (and dollars) to our area. It is happening through promotion, press releases, social media, articles and blogs. It is happening when we provide support to both new businesses and those that have been here for decades. When you become a member of your local chamber, you can consider it your investment into an organization that seeks to shine a light on you and the community you serve.
So, when a business owner says “ I just don’t see the value…” and decides not to renew, it is more than unfortunate, it is a significant hindrance to forward movement. It is a step backwards for your Chamber, your community, and ultimately, for you. Something President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1908 caught my attention recently: “No man has a moral right to withhold his support from an organization that is striving to improve conditions within his sphere.” Ok, enough said about that topic.
Though chambers have common goals, every community has different needs, which means every chamber will offer different benefits, some more than others. Right out of the gate, I realized that being the director in Piscataquis County provided some unique challenges for me, because the statistics were not pretty. Finding out that we had a history of being considered the poorest county in the state of Maine (we have since lost that title), with the highest senior (retired) population, the most families on welfare, and the highest prescription drug use, just to name a few, I knew I was going to have to think “out of the box” to make a difference. I was ready to do whatever it took to bring us to a healthier place.
One day, while shopping at Will’s Shop ‘n Save in Dover-Foxcroft, I happened to overhear a conversation between a mother and her teen-aged son in the next aisle over. I do not normally eavesdrop, but it was abnormally quiet in the store and theirs were the only voices within range. The young man was sharing with his mom what he wanted to do after high school, what he wanted to study, and what college he might apply to. Before he could finish his sentence- she cut him off and said: “What the hell are you talking about? College? We have been wiping your ass since you were born, it’s time for you to help us now. Get a job and help us, pull your weight. Your grades suck, so its not like you can get a scholarship. Who’s going to pay for it? Who?!? You can just get that idea right out of your head.”
I could not believe my ears. I am a mother of two daughters in high school. My husband and I will do whatever we can to give them the best start possible. I would never speak to my girls like that. My heart broke for this young man. I could not see him, and I did not hear him respond. For a long moment I couldn’t move. My Italian temper rose up and I wanted to turn the corner and give that woman a piece of my mind and wrap my normally non-violent fingers around her neck. I knew it might not be appropriate for me to make a scene (as the chamber director, and all), so instead I went off to the checkout line. The cashier took one look at me and asked if I was alright because I was visibly shaking. I couldn’t even speak. I was beside myself.
On the way home, my heart was racing and I felt myself tearing up. I wasn’t even sure why I was so emotional about this. Then, as I drove, I was hit hard by a realization. We are surrounded by poverty in this county. Parents are doing the best they can to survive. To pay their rent, feed their families and heat their homes. How can they dream? How can they even think about tomorrow? And, if they cannot dream for themselves, how could I ever expect them to dream for their children?
There is a generation that is missing from Piscataquis County. Seventeen year-olds graduate from high school and run as fast as they can to “find their future”. College is not the only reason they leave. Who would want to stay for minimum wage opportunities? I would certainly want more than that for my children. So, because they don’t see a future here, or a career that will actually pay a living wage without a college degree, they exit the county. But, they do not leave forever.
Here is the interesting part. Those same young adults who make a run for it in their teens return in their late twenties or early thirties. They seem to be our bright new, young business-owners. They have traveled, studied, and “found themselves”. They have seen options. They have stood in the places they were certain the grass was greener, only to realize what they really want is to come home. Come home to where they were raised. A safe place for their own children. A place where all the neighbors have your back and the business owners know you by name. A place where you know where your food comes from, and there’s a quietness and a wholesomeness to the way of life. And we welcome them back, with open arms.
But what happens during the years they are away? They are missing from our county for 10-15 years or more. According to statistics, 1/3 of our current workforce is nearing retirement age. So the number of retirees in this county is about to double, and we don’t have young people to fill those seats. Business owners, teachers, civic leaders & law enforcement, all have positions that need to be filled. If not, businesses will close, sometimes after generations. Schools and towns cannot function without people to run them.
Woven into this reality is a lack of life, a diminished vision, and no excitement for new things, for growth, or for change. So, more “for sale” signs go up, more families leave, and new hopeful businesses do not even realize there are fewer and fewer people who will come in to shop.
What can we do? How can we change this?
As a Chamber, as a community of residents and businesses, we must invest in our students. Rather than asking them to stay for nothing, we need to help them create something new to stay for. We need to reach into their lives and speak to the purpose within them. To give them hope beyond their circumstances or their family’s financial resources.
Poverty is a wicked thing. It takes the wind out of our sails. It limits our ability to believe something better can be ours. It kills motivation and instead injects a “what’s the use?” mentality into our veins like a poison. It covers homes, communities, and regions like a cloak of apathy, and it is very difficult to break free from it’s grip. Difficult, but not impossible.
I remember speaking to the students at Penquis Valley High School in Milo. I was there to tell them about a new program the Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce will be launching, our “Jr.” Chamber. It was created to teach high school students everything from interview skills, strong resumes, building business plans, marketing, and investments. It would make them aware of grant opportunities, local internships, and so much more. It is a mentoring program – linking students with business owners who are already successful in the fields these students want to pursue. Our vision is to equip these students with a plan and resources to open a business in Piscataquis, something we don’t already have, to fill a need, keep business local, and create a sustainable income for themselves, and one day, their employees.
For many years, Milo has had a reputation for being the poorest town in the poorest county. I sat in a gymnasium filled with high school students and was warned by administration that the students “might not” pay attention to me. I centered myself before them and then began walking from one side of the bleachers to the other, looking as many of them in the eye as I could – telling them they could do anything, that they have gifts within themselves meant to be shared with this world, and if they chose to do nothing, the world would be incomplete. I explained that their dreams do NOT have to be dependent upon what their parents can provide for them. I encouraged them to work hard, take themselves seriously, and know that there are people in this county that want to invest in them, teach them, mentor them, and sponsor them, because we don’t want to lose them. I reminded them that they are special, priceless, and unique, and that if they would believe- they could accomplish anything – anything at all. Sky’s the limit. I spoke passionately, because I am passionate about them. All of them. And they listened. On-the-edge-of-their-seats kind of listening.
When I was finished, close to 40 students ran down to meet me for an application into the program. One female student put her hand on my shoulder and spoke to me with tears in her eyes, and she gripped my heart with her words, “Thank you so much. No one has EVER said that to me before. No one has ever told me I could be anything, that I was good enough to do what I dream about doing. Thank you!”
Another young man unzipped a guitar case and pulled out an acoustic guitar, revealing a scene that had been carved into the wood on the face of the guitar; it was a man walking along a path into a valley, the detail was astonishing, and artistically, it was stunning. He looked at me and said “Can I ask you, do you think this could be a business?”
“Did you do that?”, I asked, speechless.
“Yes, I find guitars and fix’em up and carve pictures on’em.”
“That is beautiful, and I am so impressed – wow! Yes, that could certainly be a business!” I answered.
“Cool. I wasn’t sure because my mom keeps telling me to stop wasting my time”. He zipped up his guitar and walked away with an enormous smile on his face.
One by one, the students left until I was the last one standing in the gym. The acoustics in the gym carried the sound of the doors closing one last time behind the final student, leaving me alone to feel the weight of what had just transpired. My heart felt complete contradiction. In one sense, it was soaring, and in another, it was breaking. It was soaring because I had the privilege of watching hope come alive in these kids during a 15 minute presentation. It was breaking as they walked away, because I knew they were walking towards home situations that screamed the opposite of what I had just passionately tried to convince them. I wished I could go with them, to protect the hope, to keep the flame from being snuffed out.
One thing I know for sure. I will not stop. I will pursue them, speak life over them, give them every opportunity I have within my power to give them. I will not rest until I see the change.
What choice do we have? These kids are our future. Without them, we have nothing.
So, for those of you who stuck it out and are still reading this very long post, I don’t have fancy pictures or interesting videos to show you. All I have is the truth – and a request. If something I said moved you, inspired you, or motivated you to do something; if you want to make a difference in these kids’ lives, let me know. You can be a part of something pretty awesome. And when we are old and retired, and living in a thriving county filled with young people in whom we have collectively invested, we will look into the faces of those running our communities and local businesses, and we will have the thrill and satisfaction of knowing we played a pivotal role in securing not only their futures, but our own.
Until next time, thank you for taking a Peek into Piscataquis.