In the fall of 1995, maggie davis of Blue Hill, Maine volunteered for two weeks at a free-of-charge residential center for the terminally ill in North Carolina. Sparked by that experience, maggie and several others created Neighborcare—a volunteer, free-of-charge-to-all, independent group-work project, which continues to thrive in the thirteen towns on the Blue Hill peninsula. Neighborcare-inspired projects are now blooming in other areas of Maine as well as in other states. Except for basic records kept simply on one computer, the Blue Hill project has evolved, happily, into a non-paperwork,‘non-sign up’ model. Anyone expressing support for what we do, and asking/agreeing to receive the Neighborcare newsletter, at once is within our fold.

Neighborcare’s purpose is to serve lonely, ill, dying, incapacitated neighbors in their efforts to live their lives to their fullest capacity, and/or to find resources that support this purpose.

The Story of Neighborcare
by maggie davis
In late summer, 1995, I saw an article in an obscure newsletter telling of a free-of-charge, volunteer-run, unlicensed center for the terminally ill in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was touched by what I read of the group’s self-reliance and spirit, which seemed so in tune with the publishing and writing I was doing to celebrate an all-embracing kinship vision. I sent down, as gifts, books I’d written which reflect this vision. The folks in Winston-Salem sent me a video PBS had made, featuring their project. “C’mon down!” they said. In a few weeks I was headed from my cabin in the woods to North Carolina for a fourteen day, 60hr/wk, volunteer vacation.

I traveled so far to volunteer because my hunch was I’d be bringing back home a vital spark of what I experienced in North Carolina. Before I left, I asked a co-worker to mail out, while I was away, an invitation to a gathering at the concert café my husband and I had opened years before. In the letter, I said where I was going. I explained that though I didn’t know what I’d be discovering in North Carolina I thought that what I’d be learning there would be good for the peninsula. I said that if people wanted to hear about the trip they should come for a potluck supper at the café—and I named the day.

Back in Blue Hill on a cold and snowy fall night after I returned, over sixty people showed up at the potluck supper. In the bedroom above our café I ran the PBS video several times so every person attending the gathering had a chance to see it. Downstairs I spoke about my North Carolina experience.

One month later several of us began to meet every Monday evening (yes, once a week!) to see how we could best serve our neighbors in our mostly rural “neighborhood.”

In North Carolina I had been inspired to two visions. 1) that a group of us at home would create a place for the terminally ill located centrally on the peninsula and/or 2)that neighborhoods of volunteers would begin enhancing the neighboring already in place in each of our thirteen peninsula towns. (The third vision would come later.)
I knew ours would be a group project, if it materialized. I also knew that my only attachment as to how this project would take form was that it must be volunteer run, free-of-charge, unlicensed and fueled (and delivered) with pure intention.

During our meetings, we talked and, as we talked, felt a shape forming, slowly, for our group. (An important part of the process was forgiving ourselves and each other for thinking much of the time that we didn’t know what we were doing. What we did know was that we felt inspired.) From day one, no matter who participated, the meetings were infused with joy and laughter—even when challenges rose up and shook us. Also, no meetings lasted longer than two hours.

What we didn’t want to do was impose our own notion of good on our peninsula, or duplicate efforts already in place. So we invited Hospice, hospital, home-healthcare people and others to come to sit with us and express their own vision as to what they thought was lacking. From these meetings, amidst great initial shifts in board membership, Neighborcare was born. (Actually, we didn’t call ourselves a board for a long while, so resistant were some to adding still another concretized commitment to their already busy lives.) While our formative meetings continued, we made sure to begin/keep up volunteering, on our own, in our own towns and in the community at large. We did not want to be all talk and no do.

The name Neighborcare arose naturally from our time together, and was contributed by a co-founding board member. Much later when we were bringing out our brochure,we discussed whether or not to trademark the name and decided, instead, to encourage other groups to use their own names that had meaning for them, or ours if they were all-volunteer, offered free-of-charge service, and shared our spirit. We decided if someone “used our name in vain,” we’d face that challenge with as much integrity as we could muster and do what needed to be done.

We were careful not to publicize ourselves, though I did speak on community radio several times and set up meetings in many peninsula towns so people could get a feel of what we were about. We knew what could happen if we took on person after person in our peninsula towns and then couldn’t serve them. How cruel that would be, we realized. We understood that our visits were the highlight—as well as the saving grace—of many a person’s life.

During meetings, in addition to discussing, with respect, the people we were serving, we spent much time talking about what constituted a health-related case. We knew that every situation could be health related if we stretched our interpretation far enough. We also knew that we must be purposeful and focused, or else scattered to the winds. What happened over time was that we chose (in a purposeful and focused way!) to be far ranging, and have come full circle to our initial intention to fill in the gaps, and do that well. (A priest once called us “the honey that flows between the cracks of the toasted English muffin.”) It was and is our hope that we achieve a caregiver/caregetter balance that allows each person to serve and be served in heartful, creative, respectful ways.

Our ideal is to not only respond to—but to be on the lookout for—those who could use and might want our help. We serve joyfully and welcome anyone of any age, religion, sex, race, culture, sexual orientation, or financial circumstance to serve with us. We also welcome volunteers of every level of ability, including individuals who are housebound, bedridden and/or physically incapacitated. We invite family members to volunteer together. This sometimes is ideal for single mothers/fathers who cannot leave their children.

Our services include respite care, one-to-one informational support (eg. people who have experienced Alzheimers Disease in their family offer support to those who are currently faced with this challenge), errands, taxi service, carpentry, gardening, and building, etc., services,”alternative” healing skills, mediation services, letter-writing, advocacy, hands-on care as supplement to hospice and homehealth nursing care, and more. MORE . . . Our caring includes animals; it includes plants. We do little good caring for people we reach out to, unless we care for what they love, as well.

Often people ask us why we formed a group to do neighboring, when neighboring was already being done. Working together as Neighborcare, we affirm that we share a common purpose—also, we provide a link to each other from other service groups we already may belong to. What a gift, that we’re a phone call away from Neighborcare volunteers, peninsula wide—and now, beyond—who are glad to offer guidance and/or on-site support. Often what we do is enhance neighbor-helping-neighbor efforts so that, whenever possible duplication of services is avoided and the most effective support is assured. We applaud the volunteer efforts already in place on our peninsula and welcome opportunities to coordinate our caregiving resources with the caregiving resources of others. By working together as Neighborcare, we attract additional volunteers and increase our potential to serve more of our neighbors. We know we are more-than-the-sum-of-our-parts.

At the heart of our work is an extended-family ideal that is boundless as well as the intention that no one need suffer or die alone. We know that as we serve, we also are served beyond measure.