FREEPORT — After her aunt died of lung cancer, Tawni Whitney said she knew she wanted to do something in her honor.
And after seeing how much a Neighbor Brigade in Bedford, Massachusetts, helped her aunt throughout her illness, Whitney decided to start Maine’s first chapter in Freeport.
According to its website, the Neighbor Brigade “establishes community-specific networks of volunteers that can be mobilized to help residents facing sudden crisis manage day-to-day tasks such as meal preparation, rides and basic household chores.”
The organization has chapters in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington – and now Maine, thanks to Whitney.
It was the Bedford brigade’s willingness to go above and beyond that really inspired Whitney.
“At one point, 100 people came caroling at her door during Christmastime,” Whitney recalled. “It’s really all about neighbor helping neighbor.”
Since it was founded in January 2016, Whitney said, the Freeport Neighbor Brigade has helped about 12 families in need.
But one stood out.
Late last year, Whitney was contacted by officials at Regional School Unit 5, who told her about a man named Arthur and his two kids, Arthur III and Alley.
After two years of bouncing from spare bedroom to spare bedroom, the family, who preferred not to have their last name disclosed, found themselves living in a tent in North Yarmouth.
Arthur, who’s a carpenter and works a full-time job, made sure his kids kept up with school, and never asked for help. But with no way to charge their school iPads in a tent, he went to the school administration.
That’s where Whitney came in.
“Arthur’s priority is his kids,” Whitney said. “He doesn’t want their world disrupted if he can help it. He does whatever he can to keep things smooth and steady for them.”
With donations and support from the town, Arthur and his kids were able to stay in a local motel for three months.
The first night they were there, Whitney delivered a pizza for dinner.
“I immediately felt so privileged to be a part of their lives from that first night,” Whitney said. “I knew when I met Arthur, I would not leave his or his family’s side until he and his kids were in permanent housing.”
And Whitney wasn’t alone.
Deb Medkeff, who recently moved to Freeport, reached out to Whitney in hopes of meeting people and simply helping out.
“(Deb) naturally folded into the family,” Whitney said. Together, she and Medkeff committed themselves to the goal of finding Arthur and his family a place to truly and permanently call home.
Finding housing in Freeport was a long and often frustrating process, Whitney and Medkeff said. For a few months, Arthur, Arthur III and Alley lived in a temporary apartment provided by Tedford Housing in Brunswick.
But it was important to him, and the school, Arthur said, that the children remain in RSU 5.
Whitney and Medkeff collected used furniture, and stored it in their homes for months, in hopes that they’d find a place for Arthur and his family in Freeport.
After about four months of housing applications, with support and guidance from Freeport Community Services and the School Department, Arthur, Arthur III and Alley moved into their own two-bedroom apartment in Freeport in June.
“I leaned on (FCS) for their knowledge on the housing process and how to get the ball rolling,” Whitney said. “They were an excellent help to us.”
Through it all, Whitney said the family always remained positive. Alley, who loves to read and plays the flute, and Arthur III, who’s has been on the honor roll every semester, continue to excel in school.
“They don’t look at life and see what they don’t have, they see what they have,” Whitney said. “Arthur has kept the ship steady. … We need more Arthurs in the world.”
And the sentiment goes both ways. Arthur said he is forever grateful for Whitney, Medkeff, the schools and the community for everything they’ve done to help him and his family.
Medkeff said if there was “one thing (she) would ask of Arthur is that he would ask.”
“It’s hard to swallow your pride and accept the help, but I’m very grateful,” he said.
Arthur also credited his children for their resilience.
“If I was in their shoes, I don’t know if I’d be able to be (so strong),” he said. “… The most important thing I could pass on to my kids is, when stuff gets like that you have to pause and think, ‘How important is this?’ If I get upset over something like that, what’s it going to change? It’s just wasted energy getting upset.”
Although finding housing for Arthur and his children was the goal, the bond between the family, Whitney and Medkeff didn’t end in June.
Every week, Medkeff continues to prepare meals and Whitney shops for groceries which, together, they deliver to the family’s new apartment. All five of them see each other on a regular basis, whether it’s shopping for camp supplies, getting ice cream, painting furniture or just hanging out.
Medkeff said she’s “proud of the kids” and feels “grateful” that the family has allowed her to be a part of their lives.
“With a family like this, it’s so easy,” Whitney added. “I feel it’s a privilege to be in their lives.”
Volunteer with the Freeport Neighbor Brigade at neighborbrigade.org/volunteers. Residents who want to simply donate something, like a meal or school supplies, can contact Tawni Whitney at FreeportME@neighborbrigade.org.
Tawni Whitney, left, began the Freeport Neighbor Brigade in January 2016. In June, she and Deb Medkeff helped a father and his two children find permanent housing in Freeport after they’d been sleeping in tents and spare bedrooms for nearly two years.