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This community nonprofit is helping support its next generation in a rural Maine town. Here's how.

Friends of the River Valley officially became a nonprofit in 2021. It provides support to a number of groups that address challenges children in Rumford are facing.

RUMFORD, Maine — Rumford is a small town in the western mountains of Maine, and it has a rich history that goes back to before Maine was officially a state. The town sits on the Androscoggin River and was incorporated in 1800. 

During its golden era in the mid-20th century, Rumford had a booming mill, employing thousands of people. But the manufacturing scene has changed, and that shift has had consequences.

Children today who are growing up in the area face a number of challenges on a regular basis, like food insecurity, which often leads to trouble achieving in school. Some are also dealing with trauma resulting from instability in their home lives; for instance, if their parents struggle with mental health or substance use issues. 

Rising nonprofit Friends of the River Valley is trying to address and mitigate these challenges by investing in programs that could pave the way to a brighter future for these kids.

A window into the history

Mary Puiia LaPointe is the president of the Rumford Area Historical Society. She was born in Rumford and remembers when the community felt different.

"You don’t have that neighborhood connection like we used to have," Puiia LaPointe said.

She said there used to be more people living in Rumford, and the families typically were larger. But there aren't as many town happenings these days to appreciate, Puiia LaPointe said. 

"Growing up, it was great living here. We had lots of things to do. You could go to the community center. There were lots of things on Congress Street. There were lots of different stores to go to and things to do," Puiia LaPointe said. 

She said she thinks part of the reason for that change could be the decline in the number of people working at the paper mill in town. She told NEWS CENTER Maine two of her sons used to work in the mill, but they both recently left to find jobs in other fields. 

"When there were more employees and the mill was really booming, the mill contributed to a lot," Puiia LaPointe said. "They donated to a lot of different things to different programs, and stuff like that. I think that's changed."

Friends of the River Valley president Matt Kaubris is also a lifelong Rumford resident. He said the town used to have about 10,000 residents, and the total surrounding area had about 20,000. That number has been cut in half, he said, to about 5,000 residents in Rumford.

"When we were kids back in the '60s and '70s, that was kind of considered the heyday for the paper mill," Kaubris said. "They’ve had to make a lot of adjustments, and the community really has had to make a lot of adjustments as well."

Kaubris said back then, between 3,300 and 3,400 employees worked at the mill. Now, it's closer to 600. To quote a former Rumford town selectman, he said Rumford used to be a mill town, but now it's more like a town with a mill in it.

"We’re hoping that we can reach out and impact some of the younger kids in the community that may be in really challenging situations," Kaubris said. 

Resulting challenges for children

The changing environment of the town has led to challenges for some children who are growing up there. Rumford Elementary School Principal Christopher Decker said many of his students are dealing with hunger, with more than 85 percent of kids meeting the federal guidelines for free or reduced-price lunch.

"It’s hard to concentrate on math and reading and writing and arithmetic when you’re worried about where the next meal is going to come from," Decker said. 

Rumford Elementary School has about 250 students in pre-K to fourth grade who come from Rumford, Mexico, Roxbury, Byron, and Andover. 

U.S. News reported in 2021 that students at Rumford Elementary School had a 42 percent proficiency rate for reading, compared to 55 percent statewide. That number dropped for math to 17 percent proficiency in Rumford, compared to 36 percent statewide. 

Decker said the school's goal is to help students be as successful as possible, so they don't get set further back in middle and high school.

"It’s an uphill battle, and the teachers will tell you that," Decker said.

Douglas Maifield is the school resource officer at the Rumford Police Department. He said one of the common issues he has seen is just getting kids to school — or getting their parents to get them to school.

"There’s a lot of issues of truancy and stuff like that," Maifield said. "I always get a list of the kids' names and see who their parents are and see some of the struggles that I’m going to have dealing with them from what I knew that their parents went through. I know it definitely comes down to what’s going on at home.”

Maifield said in recent years, mental health and substance use issues have become much bigger concerns in the area, likely exacerbated by COVID-19. He said he wants to watch people build Rumford up, so the town and its children can thrive.

"I want them to stay here," Maifield said. "I don’t want kids looking forward to wanting to leave to go somewhere else."  

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine Staff

Friends of the River Valley

Friends of the River Valley officially became a nonprofit in early 2021 under founding board members Darby and John Beliveau. In that time, the nonprofit has partnered with a number of local organizations that help support kids in a variety of ways. 

FRV partnered with RSU 10 and Full Plates, Full Potential and invested $35,000 to help the school district buy a second van used to deliver food to students. From March 2020 to September 2021, the school nutrition team delivered more than 522,000 breakfasts and lunches to children and families. 

"This was a godsend," Jeanne LaPointe, the RSU 10 school nutrition director, said. "We packed roughly 100 two- and three-day meal packs in the van and did multiple routes throughout our community during the pandemic."

She said that effort continued in the summer of 2022, when they delivered about 1,500 meals weekly to eight River Valley sites.

"We know that we are the primary food source for a lot of our students," LaPointe said.

FRV also partnered with River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition and Holy Savior Parish to open the Old School Food Pantry on Maine Avenue after the primary pantry in the area shut its doors. It's open from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and serves between 40 and 60 people each week. 

"We have nonperishable items, such as canned goods [and] boxed items, as well. We have fresh produce. We have meats. We have household items," Melissa Harding, the director of the pantry, said. 

She said the pantry is able to run thanks to the hard work of 16 volunteers.

"It’s great. We’re like a little family," Harding said. "They’re the best people in the world. They’re always here, no matter what we ask."

FRV has also supported programs that address other needs among children, like education. The Beliveaus supported the Rumford Public Library even before FRV officially became a nonprofit. FRV has given $17,500 to the library to help it fund fun, educational programming for kids.

The library also serves as a space during the summer where kids can get meals. 

"Reading helps kids have empathy," children's librarian Meghan Malone said about the significance of the library being a hub. "It gives them a window into a different world that they might not otherwise be able to look into in their everyday lives."

To address other emotional needs among kids, FRV gave another $17,500 to the ArtVan, a van that visits different parts of the state to help children express their feelings and thoughts by making artwork. The ArtVan has been coming to Rumford since January.

"I think it’s been a feeling that isn’t always provided for [kids] to be able to express deeper what’s going on and build these relationships with us and communicate how they feel," Jamie Silvestri, the ArtVan founder, said.

For Rumford resident Laura Hagen, having this kind of free activity in Strathglass Park during the summer and fall for eight weeks was a game-changer for her great-grandchild. 

"They need things to do to stay out of trouble. Keep them off the streets. Give them something so they can interact with other kids, too," Hagen said.

Eddie Paterson is a volunteer with FRV. He said he has high hopes for what the nonprofit may be able to accomplish down the line.

"I’d like to think that we could end up being a strong 501(c)(3) foundation to raise lots of money, both locally and from people that used to live in the community that look back and say, ‘Boy, I’d like to give back,'" Paterson said.

He said he would like to continue to see more opportunities in Rumford for young people to get involved.

"Education is key. Volunteerism is key — getting people to recognize that there’s more to life than just getting by day by day," Paterson said.

You can learn more about Friends of the River Valley here

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