DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Seana Collins walked up the wooden staircase and through the Central Hall Commons event center, spreading her arms to show the beauty and spaciousness of the historic gathering spot.
This whole space was covered with clothing, household items, books and more, she said about the Free Cycle Mercantile held late last year. During the “pop-up swap,” a successful pilot event that might return on a regular basis, people donated items they no longer needed and shopped from others’ belongings.
The mercantile is one of many programs Collins has created or helped grow since she moved from Michigan to Maine almost a year and a half ago. She serves as the AmeriCorps VISTA, or Volunteer in Service to America, at Central Hall Commons. The federal program, founded in 1965, pairs an agency or organization with a volunteer who builds and expands programs that empower a community and help it overcome poverty. Piscataquis County is the poorest county and one of the most rural in the state.
Collins, a native Detroiter who spent most of her life in Oakland County, Michigan, didn’t move to central Maine with the intention of joining the VISTA program, but knew it was her chance to make a difference when the opportunity arose. Now she gives her energy, time and heart to a new community that she is learning to call home.
“Being a VISTA has given me a purpose and given me a place and shown me how I can be better,” said Collins, who committed to three years through November 2023 as a volunteer at Central Hall Commons.
When Collins started at Central Hall Commons, she faced the unique challenge of building thoughtful programming that area residents could enjoy safely during a pandemic. “Be like water” has been Collins’ mantra, a reminder to stay fluid during uncertain times.
Many happenings, such as the Common Conversation series — a roundtable where area residents connect with an expert on a topic — have been virtual. Residents have also tuned into the Meet the Author series, where Collins interviews mostly Maine authors about their work.
“We’re trying to engage with the community in a way that helps them see Central Hall Commons as its new mission, vision and values — that multigenerational space where everyone feels heard, cared about and like this is their space,” she said.
Collins’ most meaningful project has been the Recovery Cafe, which began in late October. The program was created for Piscataquis County residents to share their struggles with sobriety and exchange ideas related to recovery and resources in the community.
“At this point, what we’ve come to realize is that we need a recovery wellness center in the Maine Highlands area,” she said, adding that area organizations have been discussing it for years.
Although a core group of people are attending the meetings, Collins foresees some challenges, specifically related to raising awareness about substance use disorder and breaking the stigma. Sometimes those living in rural communities keep those issues to themselves, she said, although she has noticed more activism and awareness of language related to addiction and recovery.
“It’s almost like people in the city are apathetic and people in rural areas like this are more empathetic and in touch that they’re part of a community, they’re part of a whole,” said Collins, who has lost many friends to opioid addiction in Michigan. “If you don’t talk about it, you don’t acknowledge it, then you’re not going to change it.”
Collins brings a fresh perspective and willingness to work creatively, said Tara Smith, Central Hall Commons executive director. She has also helped boost the center’s social media presence.
Collins spearheaded the Our Common Purpose series, which was based on a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and explores the vulnerabilities of people’s political and civic lives and strategies to rebuild America’s democracy.
She is exploring ways to expand the Free Cycle Mercantile, which began after the community had a positive response to Buy Nothing Day, an alternative to Black Friday. She wants to start a pop-up mercantile where local artisans can display their work.
Johanna Billings, who owns the Lily Cat: Northwoods Antiques and Buttons in Monson, suspects not many area residents know about Central Hall Commons and the activities it offers, such as art, yoga and meditation classes.
“I like when things are accessible to everybody because it removes the stigma. … She’s [Collins] really into this. She really believes in this,” Billings said.
Collins’ journey to Maine began in the summer of 2020, when she and her husband, Robert Nash, were visiting friends and touring houses. Their youngest son had graduated from high school, so it felt like a good time to leave their urban community and settle in a place where life is slower and more peaceful.
As soon as Collins spotted the little red house with the pond in the backyard for sale, she knew it was meant for them. Collins and Nash signed the papers in August, and, with the help of a longtime friend and two cats in tow, were moved into their Dexter home by mid-September. The family’s two adult sons live in Michigan.
Their realtor, who was working for the community center, urged Collins to get involved there after learning about her background.
Collins earned degrees in entertainment business and public relations from Full Sail University and has experience with charity work.
Since she was young, Collins has been passionate about serving the country and celebrating the freedoms that come with being an American. Her parents were influential in sparking that desire, as her mother is an immigrant from Yugoslavia and her father is a Vietnam veteran.
Although Collins has adjusted somewhat to life in New England, there’s still much to learn about the culture and community, she said. Her work as a VISTA is to help address poverty, but “it doesn’t come at you the way that it did in Detroit,” or Bangor, where there are shelters and encampments, she said.
“We all have these basic needs, and I think folks here are much better about meeting those needs in a self-sustaining way, but there’s also this sort of silent understanding that you help a neighbor in need,” she said.
Collins recognizes her privilege and education, and she hopes to use it in her new community to advocate for those who may be struggling or need a hand. Although she thinks some people might have been cautious about her presence in the beginning, regularly going to Hannaford’s and area gas stations has helped, Collins said.
“People are very communal,” she said, once they realize someone is here for the long term and wants to contribute to the community. “They take care of their own.”
As Collins settles into the new year, she’s brainstorming new ideas to bring to the table — programs she hopes more people will participate in.
For example, she has thought about introducing a workshop where local writers and authors can teach community members about how to write short fiction stories or share their writing techniques. Collins is also working on acquiring grant funding to bring artist Matt McEntee to host a Make/Fix Anything Project workshop and create a community art installation.
Central Hall Commons has another opening for a VISTA. The community center is looking for one full-time volunteer or two part-time volunteers interested in helping with AARP age-friendly programming, Collins said. Those interested can call 207-343-3018 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.