AUGUSTA — The Governor’s Awards for Service and Volunteerism last week recognized outstanding service from across the state, but two of the biggest honorees were from Brunswick and Freeport.
Brunswick resident Howard Bliss was named Volunteer of the Year at the April 23 ceremony in the Hall of Flags at the state Capitol, and Freeport Community Services was named Outstanding Nonprofit Volunteer Program.
Bliss, who has served in different capacities at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program for the past 21 years, said the organization was small when he came on board, and he was “one of the early ones” to join the team.
Bliss was humble about being named Volunteer of the Year, saying he didn’t think he deserved the award “for the whole state” because other Mainers “would have done as much, or more” than he has.
Karen Parker, MCHPP executive director, who attended the award ceremony with Bliss, however, said it differently.
“It was such an honor to be part of recognizing Howard’s commitment to MCHPP and its clients,” Parker said. “He is an inspiration to us all.”
A press release from the organization issued April 26 also said Bliss “takes the time to listen to everyone’s story and ensure they feel safe while visiting MCHPP.”
Bliss served on the pantry’s board for six years and was also instrumental in founding the Pantry to Pantry program, an initiative that has now been running for two decades.
Pantry to Pantry offers home delivery of free groceries to low-income adults and seniors who are homebound for medical reasons. Bliss now manages the packaging of grocery boxes every Thursday for a service that provides healthy food for more than 30 families per week.
But back in 1998 when Pantry to Pantry started, he said, food was only being delivered to roughly 10 or 15 homes once a month. The program grew from homebound clients, many of which were elderly, sick, or without transportation, calling the pantry asking if home delivery was an option.
“These folks would call us and say, ‘Is there any way that someone could make up a box of food and maybe a volunteer could bring the box to our home?'” Bliss said. “I guess they were getting a lot more calls like that, so we decided, well, we could.”
Part of the program’s concept from the beginning, Bliss said, was for volunteers to tell clients what food was available at the pantry before sending the boxes, so clients get “a box of food they really wanted rather than something they wouldn’t be able to eat.”
Now, Bliss said, recipients of the Pantry to Pantry program receive a box once every two weeks, with canned goods included in their box on the first day of the month in addition to fresh produce.
Bliss’s service with Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program started small after a former pantry director noticed his pickup truck and asked if Bliss could drive boxes of food from the supermarket to the pantry.
From there, Bliss began working as an intake specialist at the pantry, checking clients in to the facility weekly.
“I’d ask them how things are going and if they had any concerns, and as time went on the clients would come every week on the day that I was there. I got to know them and didn’t even have to ask their names,” he said. “It just sort of evolved and that’s part of the work that I really enjoy.”
Last week’s award was not the first time Bliss has been recognized for his service, either. He received a different honor 10 years ago, which lead to some confusion when he heard he had been nominated and named Volunteer of the Year.
“It was a surprise. I’ve already received an award in 2008 and so I thought it was the same thing,” he said. “I didn’t really understand that I was being nominated for the volunteer of the year for the whole state.”
Paula Paladino, executive director of Freeport Community Services, said she was “really, really delighted” with winning Outstanding Nonprofit Volunteer Program, and it is a testament to the 600-plus volunteers who help with “almost all facets” of the organization’s services. Freeport Community Services has only 12 paid staff members.
Volunteers with the nonprofit operate the facility’s food pantry, pick up food at local supermarkets and deliver grocery boxes to homebound clients.
“They kind of do welfare checks when they deliver (the food),” Paladino said. “They’re kind of our eyes and ears.”
The facility’s volunteers also run its thrift store and are instrumental at three of Freeport Community Services’ annual fundraising events.
For instance, she added, at the yearly “Chowder Challenge,” where Freeport Community Services sells homemade pies, one volunteer consistently bakes about 20 pies for the event, which typically takes a full 24 hours.
Ultimately, Paladino said the state award gives a nod to how crucial volunteers are to the organization.
“I think for me, I’m especially happy about the current award we received because it’s really not about the agency itself,” she said. “It’s in honor of the amazing volunteers that make our mission come alive.”
Howard Bliss of Brunswick was named Volunteer of the Year at the Governor’s Awards for Service and Volunteerism on April 23. Bliss has been working at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in different capacities since 1997.
Staff members, volunteers and original board members of Freeport Community Services at the Governor’s Awards for Service and Volunteerism on April 23 in Augusta. FCS was named Outstanding Nonprofit Volunteer Program.