It started with a simple act of kindness: a camp scholarship offered to a child in need.
Before 2006, Nick (not his real name) was a yearly visitor at Camp Peirce Webber, a summer camp in Hampden affiliated with the Bangor YMCA.
That year, when Nick was 13, he wasn’t on the list. His parents didn’t have the money. That meant no outdoor activities with friends and classmates. No traditions to carry on. No sunburns to nurse.
The Y receives donations for scholarships every year, some anonymous, others not, but with so many kids in need, it wasn’t certain Nick would get one.
That’s where Rick Bernstein of Bangor entered the story. Bernstein had been talking with then-YMCA Director Rob Reeves and then-camp director Lance Cote.
He had an idea.
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What if we give a scholarship, Bernstein said, and instead of the recipient seeing it as charity and worrying about a way to pay it back, we challenge that person to pay it forward?
Bernstein and his wife, Heather, had recently seen the movie “Pay it Forward” and, like many, were inspired by its message. In the movie, which is based on Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 2000 novel, a young boy receives a similar challenge from a teacher. If someone does a good deed for someone else, the recipient is obligated to do three good deeds for others in repayment. The stipulation is that the deeds are things the new recipient cannot accomplish on his own. The boy’s initial acts of kindness spawn a waterfall of like-minded gestures.
But could it work in real life? In Bangor? In the 21st century?
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Bernstein said recently of his first foray into the pay it forward concept. “But we all thought, ‘We’re going to give the scholarship anyway. What do we have to lose?’”
So Bernstein, who by day is a private consultant in the health care industry, made the donation.
But he didn’t follow the money. He didn’t learn about what happened to his donation until a few years later.
Here’s what happened.
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Cote, the camp director, knew instantly that Nick would be perfect for the pay it forward challenge.
“I had called the mom earlier that spring because her son hadn’t registered for camp. I had him as a camper the summer before and we really clicked,” Cote said. “She said she desperately wanted to send him and he desperately wanted to go, but they just couldn’t afford it. That’s when I said, ‘Let me get back to you.’”
When he called back, Cote told the mother about Pay it Forward. Was this charity, she asked?
No, Cote said. It’s an investment. These donors are investing in Nick.
So, they approached the boy. Even at 13, he understood. He didn’t have money, but in an instant he found something he could give.
“We talked with him about what the expectations were, but I didn’t want to know what he was going to do. We left it to him,” Cote said. “But I knew he would take the initiative and do something.”
Here’s what Nick did.
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Another camper, a boy in a wheelchair, was in for a long summer. He simply could not do the things other campers were doing. He was relegated to watching while others were playing.
Nick, who was interested in becoming a camp counselor once he was old enough, took it upon himself to ensure his fellow camper didn’t miss out. He spent almost every hour with him, pushing him from one end of the camp to the other. They became close friends.
“There are not too many 13-year-old kids that are that unselfish to spend their time like that,” Cote said.
The next summer, Nick returned to Camp Peirce Webber.
This time, he was a staff member.
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For Bernstein, the memory of his fledgling idea still warms his heart.
“It was such a wonderful thing,” the 50-year-old father of two said recently at his Bangor home. “The whole idea of payback is heavy, but paying forward … it feels good no matter what your situation is.”
Once he saw that it could work, Bernstein began initiating conversations with others in the community. He spoke to nonprofit agencies that were already doing wonderful, selfless things for those in need.
Like a spider plant that grows in all directions, cascading down from its pot and running toward sunlight, the pay it forward concept has caught on in Greater Bangor.
“It’s been really organic,” said Bernstein, the unassuming local champion who doesn’t like to take credit.
Others are quick to insist that Bernstein made it happen.
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Pay it Forward Bangor is not a recognized nonprofit. It doesn’t solicit donations or advertise. It doesn’t steer or insist.
“We don’t want to be a corporation that collects other people’s money and decides what to do with it,” Bernstein explained.
After his first round of conversations, Bernstein held a community meeting in 2006. He kept it small, inviting five people he knew might share his idea: Reeves with the Bangor Y; Bill Rae of Manna Ministries; the Rev. Bob Carlson of Penobscot Community Health Care; Bill Lucy, president of Merrill Bank; and Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s director of health and community services.
Each embodied the pay it forward spirit every day. That spirit, Bernstein said, is a belief that even in the worst of situations, in poverty, in neglect and abuse, someone has something to give.
Yardley, who also shares Bernstein’s humbleness, compares pay it forward to a firm investing in research and development. You never know how it’s going to evolve.
Bernstein said he’s still amazed with the local response to the philosophy. At a community meeting earlier this year, led by another pay it forward champion, Jeffrey Wahlstrom, the number of participants had grown from a handful to more than 40.
But it’s the stories that have evolved out of the pay it forward movement in Bangor – stories that could put a lump in the throat of the hardest cynic — that keep it going.
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Bernstein and the many others who are putting the concept into practice all have memories from their own lives that keep them going, that keep them paying forward.
Sometimes, though, selling the concept is difficult.
“People get stuck on, ‘I don’t have something to give,’” Bernstein said. “When they realize that it’s not about money and they think in broader terms, the answer often comes: There will be a time when you can do something.”
Sometimes, pride can get in the way.
“You have a parent who says, ‘My child doesn’t need this; I can do it myself.’ So you have to approach it a different way,” said Bernstein. “You have to share your story. You have to earn their trust. Everyone can relate to a point in their life when they received something.”
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For Yardley, the memory is of his time as a teenager in Washington County when he found himself mixed in with the wrong crowd. A local police officer approached the 15-year-old Yardley and said simply, “Shawn, you can do better than this.”
“That’s something that stuck with me,” Yardley said. “Taking time to connect with me in that moment was an investment in me.”
About a decade later, that officer, Grant Golden, applied for a job with the state Department of Health and Human Services. Yardley interviewed and eventually hired him.
“I told him that the thoughtfulness he showed me at a time when I really needed it was something I’ve paid forward numerous times,” Yardley said.
In his current capacity with the city, Yardley deals with the struggling and the destitute. A day seldom goes by when he doesn’t think about how he can reach those people.
For Renee Garrett, a minister at All Souls Congregational Church, who joined the movement in Bangor early on, her memory was a pair of shoes.
She played college basketball in the 1970s at Cal-State Fresno. She was good. A team captain. But, off the court, she was just a cash-strapped student. In fact, she couldn’t afford the team shoes. In her second year, she wore the previous year’s shoes. The tread was worn and she often slid all over the court.
Surreptitiously, a teammate found out Garrett’s shoe size. The teammate persuaded others to chip in some money and they bought their friend new shoes.
“At first I was mortified, embarrassed, all of those things,” Garrett said. “I remember my coach taking me aside and saying, ‘Look, they wanted to do this. Someday, you might have a chance to do this for someone else.’
“That feeling never went away.”
Many years later, she found a way to pay that generosity back. No, pay it forward. Someone she knew through the church was going for a job interview. He was nervous. She noticed his shoes were in bad shape. It hit Garrett like a basketball to the face: “I owe someone a pair of shoes.”
At first, the recipient said, “I can’t accept this.” But then he heard the story of a younger Garrett, about how she couldn’t afford shoes, and about the teammates who pitched in to buy her shoes.
Then he understood.
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For Bernstein, it was the kindness of a man named Max Striar and his family, who were well-known benefactors to the Hebrew Academy, a private school in Bangor that no longer exists.
Bernstein’s family didn’t have much money, but they wanted this education for their son. The school was unique. You paid what you could afford. The Striar family often paid the rest.
Every time Bernstein thinks of someone who got something from pay it forward, he thinks of his childhood and the generosity of the Striars. He also thinks of the teacher, Mrs. Podolsky, who found out that Bernstein had poor eyesight and was falling behind in class. He thinks about how that led to a pair of glasses and a new outlook.
“My wife and I have put a lot of time and resources into this, but I think we’ve probably gotten more from this than the recipients,” Bernstein said. “I didn’t know where this was going to go … and I still don’t.
“But it’s kind of remarkable.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the coming months, the Bangor Daily News will highlight the local pay it forward movement with stories of ordinary people benefiting from random acts of kindness and how they chose to pay that kindness forward.