The day after the Sept. 22 fire that devastated multiple buildings and left 11 people homeless in downtown Old Town, Renee Hashey walked down to Main Street with her two daughters to see it for themselves.
“We were just kind of horrified by it,” she said. “We knew we had to do something.”
Inspired by a hashtag that had been trending among Old Town residents on social media in the hours and days after the fire, within 72 hours Hashey had contacted W.S. Emerson in Brewer about printing T-shirts bearing the phrase “Old Town Strong.”
Hashey and some volunteers sold more than 200 shirts at Old Town’s annual Riverfest, a two-day community celebration held the last weekend of September, raising around $5,000 to benefit the victims of the fires. Riverfest this year happened to be just a few days after not just the Main Street fire, but another fire on Thursday that destroyed another building on Stillwater Avenue, leaving nine more people without a home.
“I think when something bad happens, you are shocked and it’s really sad, but also it brings people together and brings out the best in them,” Hashey said. “That’s just what you do. You pitch in and help out. That’s kind of what ‘Old Town Strong’ means to me.”
Hashey worked with Brooke Gardner, lead pastor of the New Life Church in Old Town, to identify where the money could most effectively go. Gardner has coordinated many of the fundraising efforts in town, including collecting gift cards for the 20 individuals displaced by the fires and dispensing toiletries, linens and other needed items among those affected.
Gardner’s church has been deeply involved in the community, from doing outreach with people who are in recovery from addiction to opening a coffee shop on Main Street — across the street from where the fire hit. Much of downtown Old Town underwent a facelift in the past year, thanks to a $100,000 grant to fix up the facades of 12 buildings downtown, including several devastated by the fire.
“It’s really difficult to look at. People put a lot of work and money and time into those buildings, and to see them suddenly just destroyed, it’s really heartbreaking,” said Gardner, 31, who graduated from Old Town High School in 2006.
Riverfest annually attracts thousands of people from across Orono and Old Town, and features vendors and community organizations, children’s activities, live music, a pancake breakfast, a 5k run and a parade on Saturday morning, which this year went directly past the burned-out buildings on Main Street.
Like the hashtag that inspired it, however, Gardner believes that Old Town, with its working class roots and diverse mix of ages and ethnicities, is a uniquely resilient community.
“There is a unified kind of feeling here. I think people take a lot of pride in where they’ve come from, especially as a mill town,” Gardner said. “People take care of each other. It’s got that real tight-knit, small-town community kind of feel. We’re ready for the next step, and at the end of the day, this is just a setback to overcome.”