Volunteers with Mobilize Katahdin distribute food to area residents at the Millinocket Public Library on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Matt DeLaney

After a year of planning and securing grant funding, Mobilize Katahdin, a new nonprofit organization started by the Millinocket Public Library and social services nonprofit Thrive Penobscot, was set to launch in March 2020. Its goal: to address the lack of access to consistent, affordable transportation for many people in the Katahdin region.

Almost simultaneously as the group was preparing to launch, the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Matt DeLaney, executive director of the library, was faced with a big decision. Either stick with the original transportation-focused plan for the organization, try to postpone the launch altogether, or shift focus to the immediate pandemic-related need in front of the new group.

DeLaney and his team knew what the answer had to be.

“We had a huge problem right in front of us. Until we get to tackle the transportation problem, we need to be leading the regional response to COVID,” DeLaney said. “We had the funding. It would have seemed kind of wrong to just freeze the funding for the original plan, when we could use it to directly help people.”

Within a matter of weeks, Mobilize Katahdin had become the leading organization responding to the on-the-ground needs for Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway, Patten, Sherman and Island Falls during the pandemic. Since then, the organization has marshaled more than 50 volunteers to connect vulnerable members of the community with services including grocery delivery and food assistance, financial help to heat their homes, and medicine delivery.

Each day, the group receives phone calls and emails requesting assistance for older adults, families and people with disabilities — for everything from help with signing up for unemployment, to picking up a prescription or groceries for people who are staying home to avoid contracting COVID-19. Through donations and fundraisers, the group has distributed thousands of dollars in fuel and food assistance. Mobilize Katahdin has also built a “phone buddy” system, through which volunteers call homebound residents to check in on them.

“People’s lives were turned upside down, and they were confused about where to go to get help,” DeLaney said. “We tried to build a network where we could respond to all those various needs out in the community.”

Members of Mobilize Katahdin’s Steering Team gathers on Zoom twice a week to discuss bringing aid to the towns around Mt. Katahdin. From left to right: Shelly Blaisdell, Diana Furukawa, Tina McLeod, Jane Danforth and Matt DeLaney. Credit: Courtesy of Mobilize Katahdin

Since March, the group has held a weekly Zoom meeting with stakeholders in the Katahdin region, including representatives from hospitals, schools, grocery stores, nonprofits and other organizations and businesses, to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of addressing the various needs in the community.

“It’s just so we can all ask the question, ‘What are you seeing out there? Where is there a need we’re not addressing?’” DeLaney said. “And it’s partnership building, which is something we can keep doing in the future. It’s building trust between all these different people and groups.”

In the early weeks of the pandemic, DeLaney saw an outpouring of support from the community. Once the phone line for the group was set up, volunteers staffed it for 18 hours a day, answering countless calls asking for help with all kinds of scenarios.

“The work behind the scenes to get the website and phone line set up, and to train 50 volunteers, was really monumental,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the work people have done. And now we have this foundation of volunteers that can be deployed when there’s a call to action.”

Though Mobilize Katahdin is a partnership between Thrive Penobscot and the library, its home base is at the Millinocket Public Library. It might sound strange that a library — typically a place where you’d go to get books and other media and to use the internet — is leading the charge on the community response to COVID-19. But DeLaney has long been a champion for reimaging what libraries can do, well beyond lending books. Patrons, for example, have been able to borrow outdoor gear including canoes and mountain bikes from the library since 2018.

“The essential features of a library are sharing and trust and access, and there are so many ways that can happen,” he said. “These are community hubs that can do a lot of good work beyond what it has traditionally been. Although we still, of course, do books.”

Mobilize Katahdin is just now getting back to its original goal of addressing transportation. A lack of access to transportation means that many people — especially older adults — are unable to access basic social services, or enjoy a healthy social life, said Thrive Penobscot’s project director, Jane Danforth. Aside from once-a-week shuttles operated by Penquis’ Lynx Mobility Services, and the services offered by taxi companies, there is no public transportation in the Katahdin region.

“Accessible transportation has long been identified as one of the main barriers to basic human services in our region,” Danforth said. “While some local transportation options exist, many in need of transportation are falling through the cracks.”

Mobilize Katahdin aims to change that. The group now has a transportation navigator available every day by phone, to help people plan rides and access affordable transportation in the region. That will soon be followed by a volunteer driver program, which will offer free local rides for those who need them.

DeLaney doesn’t see things like food and heating assistance and the phone buddy program ending when the pandemic has largely subsided — rather, they will exist alongside whatever transportation programs the organization sets up to help people get around.

“If anything, COVID exposed a need that was already present in the community,” DeLaney said. “We’re just now getting to return to the original mission of working on the transportation issue. But that issue exists hand in hand with all these other issues. So why not do it all?”

To contact Mobilize Katahdin, call 207-370-1581, or email info@mobilizekatahdin.org.

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.