2017-06-30 / Front Page

Outreach has new director

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Mark Jago, the new executive director of Kennebunk-based Community Outreach Services, poses in the organization’s food pantry, housed in St. Martha’s Church on Route 1, with his predecessor Beth Jones, who has transitioned into the post of chairman of COS’ board of directors. (Duke Harrington photo) Mark Jago, the new executive director of Kennebunk-based Community Outreach Services, poses in the organization’s food pantry, housed in St. Martha’s Church on Route 1, with his predecessor Beth Jones, who has transitioned into the post of chairman of COS’ board of directors. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — For the first time in a quarter century, there’s a new person in charge of the charitable giving and food pantry operations of Kennebunk based Community Outreach Services.

At the beginning of June, Mark Jago took over as executive director from Beth Jones, who has run the operation almost from the moment she joined the organization in 1992. Jones is not retiring completely, merely transitioning to become chairman of COS’ board of directors.

Jones has helped thousands of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel residents over the years, but for her, the mission of serving others all started with one hungry child.

When Jones’ son Owen was in first-grade, he asked his mother one day if she would pack him a bigger snack for his school lunch. Jones naturally asked the boy why he felt so famished that particular day and her heart melted, she said, when Owen said it wasn’t for him.

“He said the little boy who sat next to him came to school without having any breakfast and he was hungry,” Jones recalled in a recent interview at St. Martha’s Church on Route 1, where the COS food pantry is housed.

From that point on, Jones began packing two brown bags, one for her son and one, with extra snacks and breakfast items, for his friend. But the ruse was discovered later that the year when the boys’ teacher gave a lesson in healthy eating. She had all of the children in her class dump their snacks out onto their desks, announcing she would rate each for its nutritional value.

“My son’s deskmate won,” Jones said, “and the teacher said, ‘Your mommy must love you very much to give you such healthy snacks.’ He looked up and said, ‘Not my mommy, Owen’s mommy.’

“The teacher was horrified because she didn’t know I’d been doing that,” Jones said.

The next day, Jones was called into the principal’s office, whereupon it was her turn to be horrified when told that between 20 and 25 children arrived at the school every day not having had breakfast.

And so, Jones quickly hatched a plan to create a snack program. COS was barely two years old at that time, and Jones had never heard of it. But school officials recommended it to her as the best means of adding some organizational structure to her plan. As it turns out, the fledging operation was in need of some structure of its own.

“They said, ‘Okay, we’ll fund you, but only if you’ll join our board,” Jones said, with a laugh.

That was 25 years ago. It wasn’t long before Jones had stepped up and was both running the COS food pantry and helping to found many of the other services it now provides, from home heating assistance to help with childcare needs. About 17 years ago, the COS board decided to put a name to what was already the reality, and began calling Jones their executive director.

“I’ve never really called myself that, I just kept on doing what I was doing,” Jones said.

COS was launched in November 1990 to economize efforts of two local churches, St. Martha’s Church and St. David’s Episcopal, to better help feed locals struggling to get by during the economic recession that hit that year.

“When some of the woman who were organizing it realized they were both doing the same thing, they decided to join together,” Jones said. “At that point they asked other churches in town if they would like to join in, and it just kept rolling from there.”

Ten churches signed up for the effort, including Sea Road Christian, South Congregational, Holy Cross Lutheran, First Congregational, West Kennebunk Methodist, Christ Church and Church on the Cape, in addition to St. Martha’s and St. David’s. All continue to participate today, with the non-perishable food pantry housed at St. Martha’s.

Over the years, COS has branched out from its initial mission, establishing programs for home heating assistance and emergency needs, as well as a voucher program with the Kennebunk Hannaford supermarket, a fresh produce pantry, and holiday meal baskets. Most recently, COS also partnered with area businesses to create Food 4 Thought, which sends qualifying children home with backpacks full of food to help feed their families over the weekends and school holidays.

“The need is real, and a lot of people don’t even realize it,” Jones said.

That’s because the Kennebunk region is often though of as an affluent community. A recent survey of home listings conducted by real estate agency Coldwell Banker found Kennebunk and Kennebunkport have the most expensive homes in Maine, with an average listing of more than $517,000. But, Jones says, there are, in fact, two Kennebunks. While the coastal area may host many well-stocked kitchens, further inland areas net worth drops dramatically.

“Some of them are second and third generation descendants of the original farmers and fishermen of the area, and they just don’t have the wherewithal, especially with the most recent recession over the past decade, to meet basic needs as their taxes continue to go up and up,” Jones explained.

Increasingly, Jones said, those in need tend to be the elderly.

“We also are seeing in increase in multi-generational homes in need,” she said. “On our most recent day, we had 38 people, but in the peak of the summer we’ll have anywhere from 55 to 60 people on a Friday. So, it’s a much bigger operation that it ever has been. In part that’s because of a greater awareness of who we are and what we do, but I also think the need is greater.”

“Luckily, we are also able to provide fresh produce in addition to non-perishables,” Jones said. “We have community gardens, which is huge, and they bring is tons of fresh food, and gardeners in town, they bring us tons of food.

COS runs largely on donations.

“Without this volunteer and financial support from the community, we would not be able to help those here in our community who need extra help to get them through a difficult time in their lives.”

And it takes a lot of effort to provide that relief. COS enjoys regular help from more than 150 volunteers, spread out fairly evenly among its 10 member churches, with a smattering of secular helpers. For many, Jones said, it’s a calling to serve their neighbors in need that drives them to chip in. All are volunteers, and all are appreciated, although few put in the 20-40 hours per week logged by Jones.

“I love it. I think it’s my mission. I think this is what God called me to do,” she said. “Yes, there are government programs, but that’s doesn’t cut it, it’s not enough, and more and more people fall in between the cracks, who don’t qualify for state aid. Their children deserve to have a decent life. And the elderly, these are people who have worked hard all their lives, and they deserve a lift at the end of it, because they can’t get by on what the government gives them. They just can’t.”

A couple of years ago, COS hired Kennebunk marketing firm New Vision Custom Solutions to help with its brand awareness and, in turn, it’s fundraising. After all, the fuel assistance program runs to $30,000 per year, while the emergency aid program — which provides $500 checks that help with everything from medicines to eyeglasses to baby supplies — is a $20,000 annual need.

Jago, 59, is a former private school principal in Houlton who moved south with his wife Becky in 2009 after their children were grown. He was working for New Vision when it took on COS and helped in the branding effort that led to COS’ first website, a new logo, and a boost in its community presence. But that wasn’t where he learned of the organization. Months earlier, Jago, a Wells resident, was working as director of Kennebunk’s summer day camp, when he noticed that several campers were getting lunch deliveries.

“I wondered who was making the lunches these kids loved, and were very healthy,” he said.

After making inquiries, Jago scored a sit-down with Jones to learn about COS and what it does. He was sold on its mission instantly.

“I knew then that this was what I wanted to do,” he said.

Jago began volunteering in the food pantry and coordinating the fuel assistance program, and was well placed when Jones, 66, began to suffer some health ailments.

“It was like God was setting it all up, because he knew what was going to happen,” Jones said. “So now I am confident everything is in very good hands.”

Jago started with COS as its first paid director June 1, earning part-time pay (20 hours per week) for full-time work (generally much more than 20 hours)

“I told the board that would have to change,” Jones said. “They could not expect someone to do what I had done for free all those years.”

Jones will remain as coordinator for COS’ special needs program, aid that goes to working folks who are often one mortgage payment, or even one light bill, away from crisis.

COS does not require proof of need, beyond what local general assistance offices do to make referrals for those who don’t qualify for municipal aid. As such, Jones says she knows there are some people who take advantage of the generosity of COS volunteers and donors. Still, she says, that does not matter. For every one person who may be taking simply because food and money is given, there may be 10 or more who are truly in need.

And, more importantly, every now and then, a call will come in from someone who no longer needs COS’ help.

“Oftentimes,” Jones says, “I’ll get a phone call from a former client, who will say, ‘I just wanted you to know, I’m back to work, I’m in a new house I can afford, I just want you to know I’m doing great.’

“And that, to me, that’s what it’s all about,” Jones said. “I think we are going to continue growing. We would eventually like to have our own space. That would be very big for us.”

“It’s not just this organization, it’s the people within the organization, people who give of themselves without expectation of making a dime, that is making a difference,” Jago said. “There are people in this community living in the shadows of the beautiful houses see along the coastal routes who are in need, and we don’t often see that, but that’s who Community Outreach Services is here to help. My mission is to help propel COS into the future, to make it even more well-run than it is now, so that those who can afford to help will say, yes, that is someplace I trust to invest my money. It’s someplace where I want to put my wealth.”

Staff writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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