Judy Hamilton of Hartford poses with some of the almost 1,600 face masks she has stitched for Spruce Mountain Elementary School in Jay. Submitted photo

REGION — Long before the coronavirus pandemic struck, volunteers throughout Regional School District 73 were making a difference for students. While there have had to be some changes, even more is being done for students within the schools they attend now.

“One thing about this community, it’s always been amazing, comes together in a time of crisis,” high school guidance counselor Chris Beaudion said at the Jan. 14 school board meeting.

Judy Hamilton of Hartford has stitched almost 1,600 masks for students at the elementary school. She has made almost 6,000 masks to date and came to help the local school in a roundabout way.

Some of the thank you cards students at Spruce Mountain Elementary School in Jay made for Judy Hamilton, who has stitched almost 1,600 face masks for students at the school. Submitted photo

Hamilton first made masks for patients at the Franklin Memorial Hospital system where her daughter is a doctor, and then began donating masks to area nursing homes.

A staff member at one of those nursing homes is the mother of Jennifer Stone, the social worker at Spruce Mountain Elementary School. Hamilton made masks for schools in the Hartford-Sumner-Buckfield district and when those needs were filled, she turned to Stone.

Judy Hamilton of Hartford at left has stitched almost 1,600 face masks for students at Spruce Mountain Elementary School in Jay. Fabric donations, such as the one seen here by SMES ed. tech Kim Cote have helped with the effort. Submitted photo

“I’ll keep making them as long as I can find homes for them and get fabric donated,” Hamilton said in a phone interview Monday, Jan. 25. “There is a need. I am an avid volunteer.

“When COVID-19 hit, there was nothing I could do,” she said. “At 77, I needed to stay away from people. Making masks gives me a way to continue to feel like I could make a difference. It keeps me going.”

Working together helps people her age battle the isolation, Hamilton said.

Stone’s husband works in another school district.

Hamilton said she has started donating masks to that district and others.

“It just keeps going, that’s what I love about it,” she said. “Volunteering was my way of keeping going after retirement. It’s an important part for a lot of us.

“This community effort is the only way we’re going to get through this pandemic,” Hamilton said. “Not just locally but the state and nationally.”

As soon as the district went remote, there was a concern that our most rural and most at-risk families would not be able to access the meals provided, high school social worker Kristy Labonte said in a recent email.

“Tina Riley helped me to organize a group of volunteers to deliver house to house to students identified by social workers from each school,” she wrote. “These volunteers were Ken Baker, Kim Cook, Deb and Jim Finley, Elaine Fitzgerald, Kelly Goodwin, and Diane Ray.”

In the past, the district has distributed holiday baskets donated by several local service organizations, Labonte noted. They weren’t able to do this this year, but the number of family requests increased from around 30 to 70, she added.

In November, staff at Long Green Variety helped donate Thanksgiving baskets to families from Spruce Mountain schools. Student council and National Honor Society students at the high school also helped.

“National Honor Society and Student Council worked together on a food drive and basket assembly, but we would NOT have been able to meet our goal of 70 without a HUGE donation of 23 baskets by the tips collected from Longreen Variety staff,” Labonte wrote.

A volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous has taken over putting together weekend food bags and delivering them to each school to be distributed by social workers there, she noted.

The food comes from the Phoenix Food Cupboard at the primary school in Livermore. The parent teacher organization at the school began the pantry several years ago.

According to a Sun Journal article from May 20, 2017, “Ongoing fundraising keeps the Phoenix Food Pantry stocked. Last year, a free produce giveaway was added because the need was so great. Once a month (SMPS Principal Kevin) Harrington drives his pickup truck to Auburn and fills it with $1,000 worth of fruits, vegetables and other items available that day.

“The food is brought to the school, arranged in the cafeteria and any student in the school can select items to take home. With the consolidation of the Jay and Livermore elementary schools, the Jay school recently began its own free produce program. Food from the Livermore pantry is distributed at both schools,” the article continued.

“The program has been there awhile, it’s super important,” the volunteer said. “We make ourselves available. I love doing that. With COVID-19 it’s been difficult for a lot of volunteers in the district. Staff have picked up the slack.”

Labonte said an organization run by Shelley Gilley and Wendy Heintz called Helping Hands  has provided hygiene bags and items to all of the schools.

“This includes things like soap, dental hygiene products, hair care, and feminine hygiene products,” Labonte wrote. “These have been so helpful for a lot of families, and especially the feminine hygiene products that we keep in the school bathrooms.”

Donations for the Helping Hands program can be dropped off at 5 Chestnut Street in Livermore Falls.

Primary school social worker Heather Hyatt shared a list of what has been done at that school in a recent email.

Long Green Variety donated 23 Thanksgiving baskets and Hannaford gift cards. Fitness Stylz also contributed to the Thanksgiving baskets.

Providing a variety of winter apparel were Tabitha’s Closet in Winthrop, the Collins family, Hilltop Collision, Scott Hall, Barbara Purrington and family members Cassandra and Eric, Jayde and Mike.

Backpacks and other basic needs were donated by Franklin County Children’s Task Force, various staff and family members.

North Livermore Baptist Church has provided school supplies, hats and backpacks.

Primary school teachers and staff have donated or purchased items to support students’ needs like donated ski pants, boots, supplies, etc. and helped in the food pantry, Hyatt wrote. Custodial staff helped with food organization, pantry fulfillment, dressing as Santa and Mrs. Clause for the kids at school, and holiday window display for the kids, she noted.

“These teachers not only this year but historically have met the needs of their students,” Hyatt wrote.

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