Stories from Waterville, Maine

This story was originally published through 100 Million Healthier Lives and is brought to you through partnership with 100 Million Healthier Lives and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Engaging people with lived experience is possible, necessary and benefits everyone.

In the beginning, all we could see were the problems. 

Almost half of Waterville children under age 5 living in poverty. Children coming to school hungry. The South End Neighborhood as a food desert. More families in crisis, as resources disappeared.

In 2014, the Healthy Northern Kennebec (HNK) community health coalition held 11 focus groups in Waterville, including 83 individuals with low and no income. People said that hunger and access to healthy food were huge concerns, even though Waterville has several free food resources such as the food bank and soup kitchen. People needing food felt daunted by red tape, long lines, and judgment. Residents felt disconnected, like they were “problems to be fixed,” and no one really cared. 

Our neighbors said, “The system is set up to fail.”   “The City has forgotten us.”   “We’re not numbers. We’re not dead dogs on the side of the road.” 

"Feeling like no one cares is worse than being hungry."

Something needed to change.

We did not know what to do, or how to do it. 

In 2015, we saw a way forward. With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,  Waterville joined 23 other communities in an initiative for 100 Million Healthier Lives, called SCALE (Spreading Community Accelerators through Learning and Evaluation). 

The answer was right in front of us: If we wanted to accelerate our progress toward health equity, we needed to ask the experts. Not the usual experts. People who have experienced hunger know what needs to improve. People with lived experience are the experts.

Together, we would take action, test strategies, and find solutions for a "Healthy Waterville."

It was rocky, at first.

We recruited focus group participants and residents who received services to work with HNK coalition's organizational partners to co-create a plan for “Healthy Waterville.” One or two people with lived experience in poverty joined our table at our first planning meetings. Some never returned. 

With coaching from the Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF), the HNK coalition did a Power Analysis. We did not fully understand how the power differential quieted community members' voices. When we got to know each other better, people were honest with us. They felt like tokens.

Things shifted when we understood that “We are all in this together.”

We vowed to increase the number and proportion of community members involved. Power in numbers made all the difference and amplified voices not often heard. The Healthy Waterville Action Team fosters relationships by uniting people in common purpose across sectors and socioeconomic boundaries. Working side-by-side in solidarity brings everyone together, in equity, for equity. We now understand the importance of combining professional experience with the wisdom of lived experience. Community leaders who have been privileged to be in power learn to listen, and previously untapped experts learn to lead us together toward real solutions.

Healthy Northern Kennebec coalition and Waterville community members meet to discuss Critical Moments along our Journey together, 6-26-19

We wanted to build a culture of health and equity in the Greater Waterville region, so we learned and shared leadership skills to become "Communities of Solutions."

We believe that confident, connected, collaborative, and caring community leaders will create a culture of health and equity for all.

We learned that everyone can lead, if provided the skills and opportunity. Distributed leadership brings community transformation. We first focused on leading from within and together, always mindful of equity. To make sure our measurable improvements would last and grow over time, we considered outcomes and sustainability. Maintaining a mindset of abundance gave us hope that systems can change and improvements are possible.

We shared these five Leadership Skills for "Communities of Solutions" in our region.

"Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty." - Margaret Wheatley, "Turning to One Another"

Linda Fossa, Debbie Dornish, Emily Knipp, Claire Heffernan, and George McAdoo

Our overall Aim is to improve the health of 16,000 Waterville residents by 2020 by increasing community connections and access to nutritious food for all.

We identified "People Working Together" as a driver of change. We set an aim in 2016: To engage a total of 50 people in co-creating actions to improve food security, including 25 people with lived experience (50%).

In April 2017, the Healthy Waterville Action Team had engaged 71 people total, with about 38 actively involved, including 16 people with lived experience (42%). Active involvement means people participated in at least three activities or meetings in one year.

At the end of 2018, there were 78 total active participants in the Action Team: 53 individual or organizational partners and 23 people with lived experience in poverty and/or hunger.

By July 2019, the Healthy Waterville Action Team included 25 people with lived experience. We achieved our aim for People Working Together!

Fran Mullin and Scott McAdoo at Waterville's historic Two Cent Bridge over the Kennebec River

How did we do it? By Connecting, Growing Emerging Leaders, and Celebrating Together. 


Debbie Dornish - Waterville resident and Healthy Waterville Action Team Member

"You can't judge people.  Everyone has different experiences." - Debbie Dornish

Debbie Dornish was a volunteer greeter at the hospital when she stopped by Healthy Northern Kennebec’s basement office. She was curious about our nutrition education program, and was soon happily chopping vegetable samples for kids to taste. Debbie was a quiet retiree, a reliable helper.

It took a few months for us to learn that despite her learning disability, Debbie is quite active in her church and she worked with the union at her previous job. Turns out, Debbie is a remarkable community connector, with a gift for remembering faces, names, and stories. She knows everyone in Waterville -- and all their relationships.

We gained a much-appreciated community asset when Debbie became an active member of the Healthy Waterville Action Team. Thanks to Debbie’s relationships, we were able to scale-up our efforts with larger groups like Kennebec Valley Organization and Food and Medicine. “I thought it would be beneficial to learn how to get other people involved,” Debbie said. “People on the streets and at the homeless shelter have a new perspective. Everyone has ideas. I want to offer mine.”

Because Debbie does not drive, she is especially concerned that lack of transportation is a barrier to getting nutritious food. She helps lead the Healthy Waterville effort to get “food to the people and people to the food.”

“I learn something new every day,” Debbie said. “We can learn from others, like on a Bright Spot Site Visit to Portland (Maine). And we can teach them about how we do things in Waterville.”

Although bringing new voices to the table can be challenging, Debbie emphasizes that it is worth the effort. Recognizing different experiences will improve your results, and she says “it will change lives forever!”

Growing Emerging Leaders

"I have a voice and I am going to use it." - Erika Bernardini, Waterville resident, Healthy Waterville Action Team member, and Grow Your Own Food group leader

Erika Bernardini was not enthusiastic about moving her three young children to Woodman Heights, Waterville’s public housing complex. When she saw her neighbors short on food, Erika decided to make this a healthier place for all families.

Erika faced a skeptical property manager and dubious parents, when she wanted to build three raised bed gardens on public housing property in 2018. '"There was a lot of worry about things going wrong," Erika said. "So my biggest thing at that point was to push for all the things that could go RIGHT." She engaged other moms and kids, and built broad support for the neighborhood gardens, which exceeded everyone's expectations.

Now, as the leader of Healthy Waterville’s Grow Your Own Food group, Erika coordinates with other community garden groups to share ideas and resources. In 2019, Erika built and planted six new raised bed vegetable gardens at Woodman Heights.

"My blood, sweat and tears have gone into this entire project," Erika said. "And it's just been an amazing learning experience."

"It's given me the opportunity to speak up and the confidence I've needed."

"Nobody taught me to garden as a child," Erika said. "I'm teaching these kids and that is a reward for me in itself."

"To see gardening boxes (at Waterville public housing) is wonderful and a dream come true." - Mary Dunn, retired Albert S. Hall School teacher

Celebrating Together

Thanks to the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, Healthy Waterville received three years of grant funding to co-create a mini-grant process that engaged community members and people with lived experience in poverty. The process was impactful from start to end.

A diverse group designed the application, reviewed the grants, and selected the grantees. The review team members asked applicants probing and insightful questions. They were excellent stewards of this resource, and encouraged grantees to focus on cooperation, abundance thinking, local leadership, and systemic change.

The mini-grants not only gave the Healthy Waterville Action Team the opportunity to have equity conversations with many local organizations, the process helped strengthen relationships that increased community collaboration. The result is a thorough and thoughtful commitment to use these funds for long-term systems change and food system sustainability on a regional level.

Healthy Waterville Action Team members presented the mini-grant awards at a wonderful community dinner and celebration on June 25, 2019. One wall was covered with our ten-foot long Journey Map, showing many impactful actions taken from 2015 – 2019.

After a healthy meal, enthusiastic new leaders with lived experience shared photos and stories of their accomplishments. (See Erika Bernardini's presentation about community gardens, above.) Guests went home with full bellies, vegetable seedlings, Farmers' Market Gift Certificates, and satisfied smiles.

One mini-grant winner said it was a lifelong dream to get a “big check.” Another said it was a joy to see the community coming together, with pride and purpose.

Mary Dunn, retired Waterville teacher and Farm to School leader

FoodCorps member Emily Dufford, teacher Gi Reed, and Food Equity Coordinator, Kelly LaCasse at the Healthy Waterville Celebration, 6-25-19

"Instead of hate, celebrate. -- Prince, American singer, songwriter and instrumentalist"

Learn more

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Engaging People with Lived Experience Toolkit
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Leadership Skills that Create Communities of Solutions
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