KNOX, Maine — When Dani Scanlon and Jeff Butler were preparing last year for the arrival of their second baby, they realized that rather than a bunch of cute onesies or new toys, the only gift the family really needed was more time.
So the couple did what many are doing these days when they need something: they took to the Internet to see if they might be able to find what they were looking for via the power of crowdsourcing. Through a new website that was developed by a couple of midcoast moms, MyBabyBond.com, Scanlon and Butler put the word out to their friends, family and others that a gift of $20 would allow them to spend one extra hour at home with their expanded family. By the time baby William was born on Nov. 8, they had raised enough money to allow them to spend four weeks home together before Butler had to go back to work at the Belfast Co-op.
“It’s really sweet when people want to give you a thing for your baby, but we didn’t need more things,” Scanlon, a certified professional midwife, said. “Telling people what you need is hard, and asking for help is hard, but in some ways the same amount of money is circulating. It’s just going towards what you deem is the more useful thing for your family. We felt that nourishing our family is really important.”
‘An incredible thing’
Nowadays, it seems impossible to scroll down a Facebook feed without running across many pleas for help. The causes are as varied as people. A recent search through Maine-based campaigns on the website GoFundMe.com ran the gamut from the sweet — a teenaged beauty queen trying to raise enough money to make it to a pageant — to the tragic — a family raising money to bury a son who died unexpectedly.
Just a few years ago, when Mainers needed help, they were limited to activities such as holding a bean supper, asking family, friends and church groups and plunking down a coffee can at the local convenience store or coffee shop. The rise in usage and importance of such sites as GoFundMe.com shows how technology has broadened the scope and definition of community, both in Maine and elsewhere. Nowadays, a local dilemma can more easily find a global solution, whether it is by raising money, buying time or using a site such as mealtrain.com to organize meals for new moms or others who need a hand.
One Maine woman who said she has been overwhelmed, in the good way, by the power and speed of social media and crowdsourcing is Jessica Libby. Her father, fisherman Glen Libby of Port Clyde, is the president of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, the country’s first community-supported fishery. He’s known for his tireless efforts on behalf of Maine’s fisherman. But last month, Libby fell ill and ended up being taken to Boston for treatment. There, he learned that he needs a new liver, possibly as a result of his childhood diagnosis with the autoimmune disease lupus.
A GoFundMe campaign to help the fisherman by raising money for medical and living expenses had raised nearly $14,000 in the first seven days, a sum and experience that Jessica Libby described as humbling.
“When you go through something, you feel very alone,” she said. “You don’t realize what kind of support you have as a community. My dad has dedicated his life to the community, and to see that people are willing to step up and help in his time of need, it’s an incredible thing. We’re very thankful for the help.”
Does technology give and take away?
Some Mainers believe the increase in personal fundraising and crowdsourcing websites such as GoFundMe, YouCaring, Indiegogo, MyBabyBond and others can have a downside. Joline Blais, new media professor at the University of Maine in Orono long has been intrigued by such websites.
“With crowdfunding sites, it’s usually about contributing money,” Blais said. “I think that something gets lost there when money is the answer to the problem, and people are not the answer. That’s a problem in a lot of different parts of our culture. Our solution always seems to be money.”
Better, she feels, may be the websites that aim to bring people together in real life, not just in the virtual one. For example, some successful “meetup” groups in Maine connect people who share an interest, such as hiking or permaculture.
“I think the Internet and cellphones and technology work best when they encourage real things to happen in the real world,” she said. “When we solve our problems locally, we have more happiness, more connection.”
Expanding the definition of community
And yet, some problems are hard to solve locally. That’s what Kristin Collins of Appleton, who launched MyBabyBond last year, believes about America’s lack of guaranteed, paid maternity and paternity leave.
“The idea is that we don’t get the support from our employers. We don’t get the support from our government,” the attorney, who started the website with Kathleen Fleury of Camden, said.
Collins said that it can be hard for new parents to ask for what they really need, especially if that is money. She and Fleury are trying to brand the website as an alternative to a baby shower, and they hope it catches on.
“The idea is to have broader reach because the story might have broader appeal to someone who is outside your social network,” she said.
The Rev. Lorna Grenfell of the Church of Universal Fellowship in Orono said that the rise of Internet fundraising is one sign that people are broadening their definition of community.
“In the past, community was often defined as those who could be hands-on, feet on the ground family and friends who were going through the vicissitudes of life together,” she said. “I think community now is larger, faster and far more involved and complicated.”
That can be because travel is easier, or because of technology, which allows news of celebration or grief to circle the world with the touch of a keyboard, she said. But this doesn’t mean that something important is lost locally.
“I would like to think that as we live and work and create networks of both close by and far-flung relationships, we are creating one community,” Grenfell said. “All of it moves us forward to care, love and support as best we know how the family we call humankind.”