AUBURN — Spring is in the air – but not yet on the ground – and Dennis Connelly is itching to get to work on his gardens. 

On Thursday, as Connelly was helping serve food at the Police Activities League  Center in Auburn, snow still blanketed the ground where he oversees a collection of garden beds in the summer. 

Connelly, a master gardener and food preservationist certified with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, volunteers his talents working at the PAL Center in Auburn and at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston. 

In a week or so, he and the children at the PAL Center will turn one of the back rooms into a seedling spot, where the fruit and vegetable plants can get a head start before going in the ground outside. 

Some years, he said, they’ve already planted the outside gardens by now, but the recent snow dampened any hope of an early spring.

His biggest thrill: watching children and young adults learn about planting and growing their own food. 

“They enjoy it, and what I find fun is that they’re learning,” he said. 

With leadership from Auburn Police Chief Phil Crowell, the PAL Center opened in 2013 at 24 Chestnut St., which was considered a high-crime neighborhood.

The goals included cutting down crime, improving relationships between police and adults and children in the neighborhood, and giving youth a safe place and opportunities to participate in positive programs.

While getting his seeds ready for spring, Connelly has also been focusing on his other passion at the PAL Center – food preservation. Think pickles, salsa, and jams and jellies. 

When he’s volunteering on Wednesdays and Thursdays, he helps the children create and can all types of preserves.

On Thursday, an after-school culinary class taught by Auburn police resource officer and chef Tom Poulin had just ended. Connelly assists with the meals, but outside of the cooking, he coordinates with Poulin to make sure they’re growing what he needs in the gardens outside. 

That could mean Maine summer classics such as tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans and potatoes. 

Connelly, 70, said some of the children are often surprised to learn what foods come out of the ground. He said most don’t know that a cucumber becomes a pickle. He pointed to a pile of potato buds in the room, and said a few children once looked at a potato and told him they didn’t like them. What about french fries, he asked them. 

“We love them!” he said. 

He said there’s no real agenda for the activities outside of making food. He said one day last week he and the children made Easter ornaments from cookie dough. 

He’s been a master gardener since 2010 and has volunteered in Auburn since the center opened roughly five years ago. 

Connelly, who lives near Walton Elementary School, was born and raised in New York City. But after attending Thomas College in Waterville, he stayed in Maine.

His wife, who is a cancer survivor, also inspired him to volunteer at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, where he works on the gardening program and hosts classes. There, he’ll show you how to make sauerkraut, kimchi and salsa. 

Recently he and some children made New York-style subway pretzels. 

When asked what drives him to volunteer, he said, “I’ve always liked giving back to the community. This gives me a chance to work with some of the kids, and most of the kids here are at-risk.” 

According to the PAL Center’s website, the Auburn Police Department looked at four years of crime data before the center opened, and found that 23 percent of all crimes committed by youth offenders in Auburn took place within an area of less than half a square mile. The stats also showed that 25 percent of all police calls for service and 28 percent of all youth victims were victimized in the same area.

With grants and donations, the center has since been renovated, and it provides educational and athletic activities for children after school and during the summer.

Shawn Boyd, coordinator of the PAL Center, was dishing out servings of beef short rib and turkey soup Thursday. He said “it’s hard to list all of the things that Dennis brings” to the center.

“His knowledge of gardening and canning is the focal point of most of his activities,” Boyd said. “However, he brings much more than that in terms of energy, patience, encouragement…The PAL Center is open to children K-12 and Dennis is very good at finding activities that are appropriate for all ages.”

“Behavioral issues among the kids are never an issue when they are with Dennis. Part of that is the activity and part of that is the positivity that Dennis brings out in them. Dennis is also more than willing to help out with other activities, field trips or fundraisers,” Boyd said. 

At a recent event at the Auburn Public Library, Connelly said the center sold about $300 worth of preserves that he and the children made. All the money made goes back to the center, which gets by mostly through donations. 

According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 40 hours of “in-depth” training in the art and science of horticulture is required to become a master gardener volunteer. 

Asked if he planned to continue volunteering, Connelly said, “Oh yes. We have no intention of heading to Florida or anything.”

Plus, he said, he has his own gardens to tend. 

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of their time to make their community a better place? Then nominate them for Kudos. Send their name and the place where they do their good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] and we’ll do the rest.

Volunteer Dennis Connelly, a master gardener and food preservationist, stands by a stack of preserves he made with children at the Police Athletic League Center in Auburn. (Andrew Rice/Sun Journal )

Dennis Connelly stands with Kaley Castonguay at the Auburn Police Athletic League Center recently. Connelly volunteers as a master gardener and food preservationist. (Submitted photo)

Volunteer Dennis Connelly stands with Kolin Castonguay, one of the children who attend activities at the Auburn Police Athletic League Center. (Submitted photo)


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: