HOULTON, Maine — The head of USDA Rural Development in Maine was in Houlton on Friday to announce a $3.4 million grant to be divided among several state organizations to improve access to health care and educational services in rural areas.
Groups in 34 states received similar federal grants, which will help fund 100 distance learning and telemedicine projects across the country.
Virginia Manuel, USDA Rural Development state director, joined area educators and administrators at the Region II School of Applied Technology in Houlton to announce receipt of the grant in Maine. More than $1.5 million will be distributed in Aroostook County.
Manuel said the impact of the grants will be far-reaching, from providing rural hospitals with specialized cameras, scopes, monitors and advanced diagnostic software to funding technology in rural schools that will allow for new curricula on wind and solar energy and green agriculture. All 16 counties in Maine will be touched by the funding.
Mike Howard, director of the Region II school, completed a grant application that secured about $1.48 million for his facility. It will be used by the school and the Maine Adult Education Consortium to provide statewide access to adult learners so they can obtain the education necessary to improve their chances of employment and obtain marketable technical skills.
“We are really pleased and thrilled, especially since we received half of the total money distributed [in Maine],” Howard said Friday. “We have received grants in the past to expand distance learning, but adult education has always been left out. Adult education has a huge need for this.”
According to Howard, some of the money will be used to help students connect through technology to classes in other areas. Others, including adult education officials, will be able to participate by video in conferences at other centers to help cut back on travel time and associated costs.
“This will save a tremendous amount of time and money,” he said Friday, adding that an in-kind match will be made to meet grant requirements. “I estimate that we’ll have the equipment we need by April.”
Manuel said that there is a “huge need” for distance learning and telemedicine in Maine and she was pleased that tools would be obtained to reach more people in the most rural parts of the state.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a written statement, “President Obama has said that no matter where you live in America, you should have access to quality educational opportunities. Rural Americans deserve the same opportunities for education and medical care as metropolitan-area residents, and these funds will make that happen.”
Manuel agreed, saying the funding distributed Friday is in line with the Obama administration’s priority of supporting education.
Eastern Maine HomeCare in Caribou also received part of the $3.4 million, securing $50,000 to purchase state-of-the-art telemonitoring equipment to serve elderly and chronically ill residents of The County. Clients will be outfitted with home telestations and related equipment.
Five other agencies across the state also benefited from the grant. SAD 75 in Topsham will get $467,873 to buy desktop video systems mounted on carts and controlled by laptops. They will install them in 26 sites, including five learning centers and 21 public schools. Androscoggin Home Care and Hospice in Lewiston will get $325,000 to expand its health care services to more patients and their families, and $490,132 was awarded to Learning Disabilities Association of Maine in Waterville to connect students who have specific learning disabilities with educators and other specialists.
In Unity, $492,200 will go to SAD 3 to connect 21 high schools, middle schools and elementary schools with one another and higher education institutions to deliver classes, training and mentoring. The Maine Sea Coast Mission in Bar Harbor was awarded $108,820 to upgrade the Sunbeam, a large ship that has been providing health care services to island communities for more than 100 years.
U.S. Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, R-Maine, also were happy to hear the news.
“Many rural areas in our state lack quality access to the educational and medical facilities that they need and that could greatly improve their quality of life,” they said in a joint statement. “This funding will utilize new technology to provide expanded service to these areas, including better home care for critically ill patients, and technical skills training for adults to improve their employability.”