After devastating downtown fires, Lewiston Unites aims to inspire new leaders, volunteers

Posted Sept. 23, 2013, at 6:06 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — The official response to a series of spring fires is only part of the story, according to community organizer Shanna Rogers.

“There are solutions people can take by themselves, with a neighbor or with a neighborhood group,” she said. “These are really self-solutions.”

City officials will report back to residents about what’s happened downtown since their first Lewiston Unites discussion at Longley School in May.

The discussion is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Sept. 25 in Callahan Hall, upstairs in the Lewiston Public Library.

Panelists include City Administrator Ed Barrett, school Superintendent Bill Webster, police Chief Michael Bussiere, fire Chief Paul Leclair, Code Enforcement Director Gil Arsenault and Economic Development Director Lincoln Jeffers. They are scheduled to discuss improvements to fire and police safety, housing and development and schools.

The first Lewiston Unites discussion brought residents to the Longley School to talk about what the community needed to do in the wake of the fires. Topics ranged from housing to jobs to quelling illegal activity downtown.

“People said they do things on their own,” Rogers said. “People said they could speak with more pride about the community, clean up around themselves and be more engaged with the community.”

Rogers said the Lewiston Unites process brought together a new core group of volunteers and inspired many people to work together.

Groups and volunteers worked together on two trash cleanups on July 26 and Aug. 3. It amounted to 600 volunteer hours across six downtown sites. A third cleanup is scheduled for Sept. 29.

Rogers said that kind of event has a broader effect.

“Each time citizens come together to clean up, it helps that day,” she said. “But those people that help clean up are less likely to be throwing trash on the ground next time. I’ve already seen that, people picking up trash behind someone else — and saying something. So it builds, and it spreads.”

Another 36 volunteers worked to survey downtown residents to learn their opinions about their quality of life and sense of community. Volunteers knocked on more than 700 doors and interviewed 256 residents.

Rogers said the group was made up almost entirely of new volunteers who had not done community work before.

“Our goal was to increase the number of leaders in the community,” Rogers said. “We want them to enact change, not us. We wanted them to learn new skills and to feel like leaders. And that happened, and that’s the real story.”

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