As we finish 2016, our thoughts at the BDN turn to the interesting people we met throughout the year. It’s been our privilege to share the snapshots of their lives, whether uplifting, tragic or surreal, with our readers.

Yet we know the story doesn’t end with our telling, and in fact, the story often changes greatly after we’ve told it. This makes “Whatever happened to …” a common refrain not only in our newsroom, but we expect, among the public as well.

That’s why, at the end of this year, we wanted to find out “whatever happened.” For the next few weeks, we’ll be touching base with several Mainers whose stories came to attention during the year. What we found may sadden, delight, or surprise. In all cases, we hope you enjoy them.

– Anthony Ronzio, Editor, BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Musician Jenny Van West went on a Cyber Monday spending spree after Thanksgiving. She shelled out over $900, snapping up loads of guitar picks, strings, electronic tuners and cases online.

But it wasn’t her money, and the music gear isn’t for her.

Van West, founder and sole proprietor of the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project, was using a $5,000 grant that will help expand her efforts to give instruments to Portland’s newest Mainers.

Van West has been successful at finding donated instruments from local musicians. But the grant she received in late November from the Mountain Hill School at Milton Academy’s Garden Hill Fund will allow her to go even further. She’ll be able to help pay for instrument repairs, new strings and lessons.

“And there are certain things that are harder to get [without cash],” said Van West, “like a decent case.”

She mostly helps Portland’s asylum-seeker community who have a lot of time on their hands while waiting for the glacial wheels of the federal bureaucracy to decide their cases. While sitting in this holding pattern, they are barred from looking for work but are free to make music. Most don’t have access to instruments, having fled their homelands with only what they could carry.

By staying in touch with the musicians she helps, periodically supplying them with new strings, Van West also can spin a stronger web of contacts and community.

“It’s a way of keeping that relationship going,” she said, “and helping to motivate people to stay connected with me in case, maybe, I want to tap them for being a teacher down the road.”

The fund’s grants are awarded each year to alumni who, according to its website, “reach beyond the self and focus on the common good — in their own communities and the larger world.”

Though the cash infusion helps, Van West is always looking for more instruments. She still has a waiting list, including two men from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are waiting for an asylum ruling right now.

The solo, volunteer work she does in tracking down the needy and coordinating donations is difficult and time consuming. She also has her own family and career to manage.

Add that to the often chilling rhetoric around immigration from state and national politicians, and you might wonder why Van West goes to all the trouble.

“There’s a lot of fear out there right now, fear of everything. But when we find a way to walk into that fear, magic happens,” she said. “I’m just in it for the magic.”

If you want to help, contact Jenny Van West at She’s looking for playable guitars and small keyboards.

Read more about Mainers We Met here.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.