If there was ever a time for Mari Abercrombie, longtime director of the nonprofit Windover Arts Center in Newburgh, to make lemonade out of lemons, it would be this summer.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in late May, Abercrombie, the driving force behind the 36-year-old summer arts camp for area students aged six to 16, had her life thrown into uncertainty. Though her cancer was caught very early and her prognosis is very good, the question remained: what to do about summer camp, which was due to start in just a few short weeks?
Fortunately, the board at Windover Arts Center made the difficult decision for her: camp would have to be canceled for the summer, so Abercrombie could focus on treatment.
“Honestly, it was a big sigh of relief. They made the decision for me. We have the best board,” said Abercrombie, 62. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘I could do it. I could still run it.’ But the reality is, the program can wait. I have to do this now. I can’t try to do both.”
Windover, a haven for creative young minds in the Bangor region, has since 1981 offered summer and school vacation camps teaching a wide array of creative skills, like pottery, both digital and film photography, jewelry-making, drawing, stained glass, filmmaking and theater.
“When we first went to an open house there, for our daughter when she was little, we stepped out of the car, and my wife just said, ‘This is a good place.’ It is a good place. It just feels good to be there,” said Matthew Dunlap, the chair of the board of directors at Windover, and Maine’s secretary of state. “Mari makes it about the kids. She makes it about their experience. They get exposed to things they’d never get exposed to otherwise at school.”
Windover was founded in 1981 on Miles Road in Newburgh; since 1994 the camp has been located on Abercrombie’s rambling, idyllic, 20-acre property on Kennebec Road, also in Newburgh. There she — and, since 2002, Isaac Fer, her son and assistant director — has nurtured several generations of students. Alumni of the camps now number in the hundreds, many of whom are now adults with children of their own.
“We didn’t know how best to approach talking to people about the fact that we needed to cancel, but the board just started talking to families, and they were overall very supportive,” said Abercrombie. “There are very few reasons to cancel on somebody this late, but one of those reasons is your health, and that’s what this is.”
Though camp this summer has been canceled, the lemonade that Abercrombie and the Windover board plans to make out of those lemons will come in the form of a strategic restructuring of the camp’s operations.
“We’ve been needing to makes some changes to the program — nothing huge or obvious, but some business decisions in terms of how we run things, and who are our clients are, and possible expansions of our programming,” said Abercrombie. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to do that and run the camp. This is the time to do it. It’s a mixed blessing, yes, but now we have the time to do it.”
Abercrombie is not the sort of person to take anything lying down.
“This is a monkey wrench in everything. But it hasn’t ground me to a halt. It’s inspired me, in many ways,” said Abercrombie. “I think whenever something throws you for a loop — changing jobs, or a divorce, or a diagnosis — you do have to take a bit to regroup. But I have to say, I’m pretty overwhelmed with well wishes and support. You see people rally around other people all the time, but when it happens to you, it’s just so much, I can hardly talk about it. It gets me choked up. It means so much to me.”
For the board, it was an easy decision to make.
“She can’t focus on the kids and take of her health,” said Martha Harris, a Bangor-area lawyer and a longtime board member at Windover. “Her health is really the first thing that needs to be taken care of. This is a hiatus. We fully intend to be back next year … and she’ll do fine. She’s got a good, upbeat attitude. She’s really a fantastic lady.”
Abercrombie’s early detection of the pea-sized lump came at a fortunate time for her. She had gone most of her life without any health insurance, and at the end of last year was finally able to sign up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
“I love what I do, but we’re a non-profit. We can’t afford to pay for my health insurance. I never had any until six months ago,” said Abercrombie. “I would not have been able to have insurance without the Affordable Care Act. This was finally my opportunity to have coverage … who knows what would have happened if I didn’t have insurance? I’d be in big trouble. I’d be losing my home … I still have bills, but it’s nothing like what it would be otherwise.”
Two fundraisers for Windover and for Abercrombie’s medical bills are planned. On Friday, June 30, diners can bring a coupon found on the Windover Art Center Facebook page to Margarita’s in Orono to have 20 percent of the bill donated. On the evening of Thursday, Aug. 24, the Tarratine on Park Street in Bangor will host a Cocktails for a Cause event, with a percentage of drink sales and tips benefiting Windover.
Fer said that depending on how Abercrombie’s treatment goes, the camp may host some one-off programs towards the end of the summer.
“Mari is the core of Windover, but we still have a lot of super talented people here, and the kids are just dying to get back over here,” said Fer. “We may have a mini-Windover in August. We’ll see. Right now, it’s all about her getting better.”