UNITY — Montville mother Elisha Schofield drives 15 miles “into town” three times per week to use a small gym located in the white clapboard community center in the middle of the town. While she runs on one of the few pieces of workout equipment, her 5-year-old son hangs out at the center. Sometimes he watches a movie, other times he plays with the center’s mascot, a big black dog named Bailey. Most recently, he chatted with the local sheriff, who occasionally stops by.
“It gives us a place to go,” Schofield said. “We homeschool, so it’s a nice way to get out and meet with other families and friends we normally wouldn’t see.”
The community center is run by Unity Barn Raisers, a multigenerational organization working to keep the integrity of the town intact while providing services and opportunities for the town’s widespread residents.
The Barn Raisers started in 1996 with the mission of identifying community needs not being met by local municipalities and businesses. These days, the group aims to keep Unity self-reliant and self-sufficient.
“Now there’s a great business association, so we’re more focused on community programming because that’s what there’s a need for now,” UBR Board Member Sara Trunzo said.
At the same time, the group realizes they can’t provide everything for everyone. More often than not, they are a middleman of sorts for other organizations that need space, volunteers or other service the group can provide.
“We’ve been able to stay real [financially] lean because we aren’t trying to be or do everything. It’s more about stepping in at those vital moments,” Trunzo said.
As a result, the community center has become a sort of focal point, providing everything from a gym space to a knitting and fiber club.
“We have such a wide spectrum of groups and people using this space,” UBR Programs Director Mary Leaming said.
The organization also host events, such as an almost monthly “community meal” that gives far-flung residents a chance to connect with neighbors and friends, and serves as a fundraiser for the center, which is financially supported through a combination of donations, grants and programming fees.
“[The community meals] are a great living advertisement, and these are activities that are really serving our senior population and helping them age in place and live independently while still having a sense of community,” Trunzo said.
A changing community dynamic
On the drive into Unity, there’s a sign that sums up the quaint rural town, where you’re just as likely to see a horse and buggy driving on Main Street as a tractor or a 20-something riding a single speed bike.
“Where old fashioned values are not old fashioned,” the sign reads.
Unity may be old fashioned, but the group serving its residents are far from “old.” The 10-person board ranges in age from 20-year-olds to a member who just turned 80, reflective of the change residents say is happening throughout the area.
“There’s a resurgence of younger folks coming back to the country,” Colleen Hanlon-Smith, a Freedom resident and board member, said. “Groups like this give our community the opportunity to find a synergy through collaboration.”
But what attracts people such as Hanlon-Smith, Leaming and Trunzo to the town that at first glance only boasts a single pizza restaurant and a local bank.
“I think it’s the beautiful blend of the old-fashioned hometown values, but there’s also a type of progressiveness,” Leaming said. “A lot of people I talk to say they came back or moved here for that reason.”
Hanlon-Smith said it’s that blend that lends itself to collaboration that extends beyond Unity’s borders. It’s what makes the multigeneration group such a success with learning going both ways.
“The interior Waldo County area really has this rugged independence that really breeds innovation,” she said. “Farming is what brought me here, but what’s keeping me is a really engaged community.”
Plus the three young board members argue, young or old, you wouldn’t move or stay in Unity unless you wanted to.
“You live in Unity, you want to live the good life. … It’s a common language spoken across the generations,” Hanlon-Smith said.
In the coming months, the organization is hoping to start focusing its programming on topics that more and more people have expressed interest in.
Workshops could include everything from how to afford solar to a do-it-yourself heat retention window insert class.
For local businesses, it could mean providing free energy audits and/or weatherization assistance for low-income families.
“We want this to be something that’s great and really provides to value to the people and companies that are right here in Unity,” Trunzo said.
The Unity Barn Raisers board of directors is looking to expand this spring. Anyone interested should call Leaming at 207-948-9005.