The participants in the first Aroostook Civic Academy held last fall 2022 in the front row from left are Dottie Wheeler, Susie James, Charlene Bradbury, Robin Barker, Pat McCain, Barbara Robertson, and Joy Barresi Saucier of Aroostook Agency on Aging. Back row from left are Dick Engels, Tim Vernon, Ginny Joles, Andrea Pesut, and Louise and Robert Roy. Credit: Courtesy of Aroostook Agency on Aging

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Seniors will learn how to engage with government officials at multiple levels when a learning series returns to Aroostook County next month.

The Aroostook Agency on Aging will host its second Civic Academy starting in March.

Aroostook has the sixth oldest population in the state, with more than one-quarter of its residents 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census. Part of the agency’s mission is to help people live well and participate in their communities, and the free course aims to empower residents to have a say about policies that affect them.

“There are many needs that exist in our communities, and often a change in public policy is required for those needs to be met,” said Joy Barresi Saucier, Aroostook Agency on Aging executive director.

The course aims to teach people how to navigate different levels of government, and speak up on topics that are interesting and important to them, she said.

The Civic Academy is modeled after a similar program in Boston, created by that city’s Age Strong Commission Director Alison Freeman, Barresi Saucier said.

The Boston Senior Civic Academy started in 2018, developed by the city and the Gerontology Institute. Many seniors didn’t think policy makers took their needs and experiences into consideration, according to Caitlin Coyle, a research fellow with the institute. The program gave seniors a chance to learn how to interact with different levels of government and express their concerns.

At a policy conference in Washington, D.C., last March, Barresi Saucier met Freeman and the two spoke about Boston’s program. Barresi Saucier wanted to bring the academy to Aroostook County, and Freeman helped shape the course, she said.

The Civic Academy will be led by volunteers from throughout Aroostook, including Ginny Joles, Tim Vernon, Dick Engels and Susie James of Presque Isle, Barbara Robertson of New Limerick, Pat McCain of Houlton and Dottie Wheeler of Bridgewater.

Course participants will learn about advocacy and the issues facing older people. Then, in a combination of in-person and virtual sessions, local government officials, Aroostook County commissioners, law enforcement and state and federal government representatives will speak.

Last year, the group of 12 participants attended a class on local government in Houlton. Other sessions, held in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, included Social Security, Immigration and Naturalization Service and legislative representatives, Barresi Saucier said.

This time a panel of presenters from different advocacy organizations around the state will take place during the last session. Exercises will teach the group how to make an “elevator pitch,” which means getting their points across quickly when advocating for senior issues, she said.

Barresi Saucier doesn’t believe any other agencies on aging in Maine are offering a civic academy, but said the Aroostook office would potentially help them start similar programs if they wished.

The first course is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22, with classes held each Wednesday until graduation on May 3. Participants can join from the agency’s office in Presque Isle, the University of Maine at Fort Kent or the Higher Learning Center in Houlton.

“The whole idea behind the program is to help train people to become better advocates for seniors,” Academy volunteer Wheeler said. “We hope that with the Civic Academy we can get seniors involved throughout The County that will get this particular training and they in turn can be there to advocate for others.”

Participants receive insight on tactics to use when contacting their local and state representatives with concerns and suggestions for policy changes, Wheeler said.

Susie James participated in the fall session and will now help facilitate the course. Long interested in government issues, she wanted to learn to advocate for her age group.

“I learned a lot about the local agencies in The County and it was totally a worthwhile experience,” said Susie James of Presque Isle.

Any seniors living in Aroostook County will be considered for the 24 slots available in the spring session with a hope of having two Academy sessions per year that will last six weeks for six hours each session. Applications are due on Friday, March 10 by 5 p.m.

Correction:  A previous version of this story contained an inaccurate location for southern Aroostook classes.