HERMON, Maine — As fraternal twins, Matthew and Ben Nichols bear a strong resemblance to one another. They have similar eyes, hair color, stature and smiles.
When it comes to their interests, however, the two seventh-graders, who are 13, could hardly be more different.
Matt’s passion is botany, an interest he developed at the age of 2, when he began helping his grandmother, Kathy Clegg of Hermon, in her garden.
In contrast, Ben is interested in Reiki, a Japanese healing art that involves helping others improve their energy flow through hands-on, no-touch and visualization techniques. He has completed beginners and advanced training and hopes to reach the master level within the next few years.
The twins’ mother, Kim Nichols, an educator by profession, admits the teens’ interests aren’t typical for seventh-graders. She said, however, that she and her husband, Brian, a KC-135 pilot for the Maine Air National Guard, believe it is important to do everything they can to provide them the tools — such as books, lessons and mentors — they need to pursue them.
“Our goal was for them to be well-rounded, healthy, independent individuals and, you know, happy,” she said during an interview this week.
A member of the Arbor Day Foundation, Matt has planted dozens of trees, including one of his favorites, an exotic dawn redwood thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in China in the 1940s. He also has run an organic vegetable business for the past several years and has shared his knowledge with his peers through 18 botany lessons he delivered to fifth-graders at Hermon Elementary School.
Last spring he became one of the youngest people to complete the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program, 40 hours of in-depth training in the art and science of horticulture, for which he had to receive special permission to enroll because of his age.
Matt spent much of the spring and summer volunteering at Ecotat Gardens and Arboretum, an 88-acre preserve located at the intersection of U.S. Route 2 and Annis Road, where he has found a mentor in Armand O’Clair, who has worked to inventory Ecotat’s extensive collections of trees and plants over his more than 15 years with the nonprofit.
He said he hopes Matt will help develop an Internet listing of some of the non-native trees at Ecotat to complement the page about native species Hermon Elementary School students created for Ecotat’s website.
“Matt and I identified and put markers on 65 non-native trees which people can pass by and not even realize what they are seeing,” O’Clair said this week while giving a quick tour of Ecotat.
Matt, he said, even has solved a botanical mystery at Ecotat by identifying a white mulberry that had him stumped for years.
Matt and and his family currently are developing a breast cancer survivor garden at Ecotat. Inspired by his grandmother, a two-time survivor, the garden features pink plants and shrubs, as well as a birdhouse his grandmother had made.
On Friday, Matt’s achievements will be recognized when he is honored as a co-winner of this year’s Distinguished Student Award from the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented during the organization’s annual conference at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston.
He was nominated for the award by Marcy Soucy, the Hermon School Department’s gifted and talented consultant.
“Each of us has unique gifts and talents. It’s what we choose to do with those talents that make a difference,” Soucy wrote in an email about Matt. “It isn’t every day that someone so young knows what they are passionate about, but Matt not only has found something he is passionate about, he took that passion and let it grow and develop through opportunities outside our school learning environment.
“He is truly an exceptional example of a student who is using the resources of the community to expand his own knowledge base and how gifts can be passed on to others. Matt truly shares his passion with others.”
Ben’s interest in Japanese culture and art forms, including origami, was sparked when a Japanese exchange student his mother went to high school with visited the family’s Ridge Road home.
His interest was further fueled when his father decided to try Reiki after an ankle injury through a free service offered by volunteers at Eastern Maine Medical Center. Joan Osler, a real estate agent by profession, served as his teacher and mentor.
“He’s a pretty amazing kid,” said Osler. “He’s quiet but he’s deep. It’s just so amazing.”
She added that Ben’s interest in helping cancer survivors has been spurred by his grandmother’s experiences.
“He’s just a sponge and very intuitive for a child that age,” Osler said. Sometimes, she said, she is blown away by Ben’s observations, such as a comment he recently made: “Isn’t it amazing how Reiki transcends time and space?”
Ben had an opportunity to share his Reiki skills with breast cancer survivors during a retreat last month at the Bangor Y’s Camp Jordan offered by the Y’s Caring Connections program.
Ben said this week that Reiki benefits the subject and the practitioner.
“You’re just a channel,” he said. “You’re basically getting treated when you treat people.”
He added that the benefits of Reiki have been confirmed by scientific studies. “A lot of hospitals offer it now. It costs them little to nothing.”