PAY IT FORWARD

Woman turning life around thanks to kindness of strangers

Posted Nov. 01, 2011, at 2:44 p.m.

Editor’s Note: The following is one in a series of articles being featured by the Bangor Daily News that will highlight a local Pay it Forward movement with stories of ordinary people benefiting from acts of kindness and how they chose to pay that kindness forward. These will be featured on the Positively Maine page. In this story, Ava has requested that her real name not be used.

Ava reached rock bottom nearly two years ago. She was deeply depressed, addicted to drugs and neglected to care for her young daughter who often ran around the house unattended. One day when the child, then 3 years old, ingested some prescription anxiety medication, Ava was forced to rush her to the hospital knowing that her daughter likely would be taken from her.

The Department of Health and Human Services did take custody of the child, and Ava struggled for a year to get clean and turn her life around. She realized that something had to change. Desiring the eventual return of her daughter, Ava thought and prayed long and hard and eventually ended up at the Bangor General Assistance office. Expecting to be turned down or bombarded by invasive questions and treated as just another number asking for a handout, Ava was pleasantly surprised.

With the help of General Assistance, Ava began volunteering in the office at a local health agency and within a month was hired. Just as Ava was fighting to get back on the right track and things were looking up, she once again was derailed by a series of unseen expenses that she simply could not pay for. On top of various debts and bills, Ava needed nearly $1,500 to repair and inspect her car so she could continue to get to work.

Enter Rick Bernstein, Shawn Yardley and the Pay it Forward program.

They asked Ava to give them an estimate on what the car repairs would cost. Within an hour, she was informed that the full cost would be covered. The concept of Pay if Forward was explained to her and she was overwhelmed. The conversation ended and as she hung up the phone, Ava said she began to cry.

“It wasn’t just about the money. I was being told that they thought I was a good enough person, that I would go on to do good things in the future to pay back what they had given me. This fund has the ability to take people who are distressed over life’s problems and lift them up, empowering them with the consoling thought that they are worth it, and that people believe in them,” Ava said.

Rick Bernstein of Bangor is the driving force behind the Pay it Forward program. Bernstein and his wife, Heather, were inspired by the powerful message of the movie “Pay it Forward” based on Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 2000 novel. Through his and others’ generous donations, people are able to receive the aid they need without planned repayment or other restrictions, even if they do not qualify for but are “worthy of” general assistance. The idea behind the Pay it Forward movement is that instead of paying back, people can pay it forward by helping others and making a positive impact on their community.

Shawn Yardley, executive director of Bangor Health and Community Services, is in charge of the Pay it Forward fund and ultimately decides how to best distribute the money. He says that Pay it Forward allows him to assist people who may not qualify for general assistance, and that money given to people is not a handout, but an investment.

“General assistance is an entitlement. By nature of their financial situations people are entitled to assistance from the government. Pay it Forward is different. Some people are not entitled to receive general assistance for some reason or another, but they are worthy of it. That’s where Pay it Forward comes in,” Yardley said in a recent interview.

“Everything that I do is not a handout, but an investment. It is about helping people move from where they are to where they want to be,” he added.

Yardley said that as with any investment, he expects a return in terms of community service from those who are helped. When asked about making a possible “bad investment” he said, “I believe in people. I don’t worry as much about being wrong and giving it away, but being wrong and not giving it away.”

Yardley said he and his staff see the Pay It Forward program as a way to invest in people’s success.

“We see people differently now and that’s the power of Pay it Forward. It doesn’t just affect the people receiving the aid, but the entire community. I truly believe that whenever we help people this way, we are changing them, the community, and are being changed as well,” he said.

Michelle Hamlin, one of the four members of Yardley’s staff, handled Ava’s case. “Everyone has potential. Pay if Forward gives us the opportunity to see that potential and lend that extra hand to people in a bad situation that might inhibit them from succeeding that we couldn’t help otherwise. It is a wonderful program and we are very fortunate to have it in our community,” Hamlin said in an interview on Monday.

Ava said the Pay It Forward program has been therapeutic and rewarding for her. Simply having people convey to you that you are a good person with the ability to be a productive part of a community is positive part of the program.

“It really lifts you up after you have been beaten down your entire life. It has given me self-confidence and motivated me to keep going. It still motivates me,” she said.

Ava said she feels driven to succeed so that she does not disappoint the people who believed in her enough to invest in her future. She hopes it will be rewarding to them to see her grow and get stronger, knowing they were part of her success.

“I can’t let them down. … I hope to, through Pay It Forward, be able to feel the same way knowing that I helped someone like me grow and get their life back on track,” she said.

Today Ava is trying her hardest to pay it forward in any way she can. Whether it is the little things she finds herself doing such as donating clothes she does not need or working hard to raise awareness about drugs, general assistance, and the pay it forward movement by traveling to events to speak about her experiences, she is doing her best. Her outlook on life has changed and she is currently in the process of going through litigation to get her daughter back.

Ava credits the “investment” program.

“She is proving to be a good investment and a prime example of what the program is capable of,” Yardley said.

Ava knows her work isn’t done.

“It’s constant. When you are an addict, you never lose the urge and Pay It Forward has been the constant reminder against that path,” she said.

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