Leaving early Saturday morning, nine Bowdoin students piled into a van, grabbed breakfast en route and drove four hours to the small Down East town of Milbridge, population roughly 1,200.
They were volunteering their day to help the local nonprofit Mano en Mano host a potluck to raise money for its Latino Scholarship Fund. They came, too, to satisfy their curiosity about the small population of Mexicans and other Latinos living in this remote corner of Maine.
Mano en Mano, Spanish for hand in hand, is led by Ian Yaffe ’09 and helps provide education, housing, and access to healthcare and social services to Down East’s immigrants and farm workers, including the 600 or so Latinos who have settled in this region over the last 15 years.
“What caught my attention was there was a Latino population in Maine,” Mariya Ilyas ’13 said about her first impressions of the organization. Despite the common perception that Maine is homogenous, she said she’s discovered diverse issues and people throughout the state during her time at Bowdoin.
Ilyas co-led the Weekend Service Trip to Mano en Mano’s headquarters in Milbridge with David Vasquez ‘14. This was the second time she’s led a weekend trip here, and the third time she’s volunteered with the nonprofit. “It’s a wonderful organization,” she said, “and it’s great to continue the connection Bowdoin has there and see how far the common good can go.” [View photos and a short video from the trip taken by Ilyas and Elizabeth Gonzalez '15.]
Weekend Service Trips were launched at Bowdoin in the fall of 2009 by Krista Bahm ’11 and the McKeen Center for the Common Good to give students the opportunity to learn about Maine communities through service, according to Susie Dorn, director of the McKeen Center. So far this year, students have headed out on six trips, with two more to go this semester.
Vasquez, whose family is from Ecuador, agreed with Ilyas that it was his surprise upon first hearing of the Down East Latino community that inspired him to co-lead the trip. Washington County, Maine’s easternmost county, is known more for its blueberry barrens, traditional fishing towns and stark poverty than for its vibrant multicultural community.
A similar curiosity attracted volunteer Ilana Mayer-Hirschfeld ’14, who said she also wanted to make the trip to connect with people from home. “I’m from Mexico, and it’s good to know Mexicans,” she stated.
Yaffe, who’s been Mano en Mano’s executive director for two years, took the job for a couple of reasons. “It was an interesting community I was unaware of existing in Maine,” he said in a recent phone interview, “and I was excited by the opportunity to come back to Maine and do work that was really interesting to me, in fields I had previously studied at Bowdoin — Latin American studies and teaching. It’s hard to think of any other job in Maine that my majors prepared me for.”
His connection to Bowdoin has helped the college foster strong ties to Mano en Mano. The latest Weekend Service Trip was the third time students have traveled to volunteer at the organization. Taylor Escajeda ’12 last summer interned for Mano en Mano, and in February, Bowdoin’s Latin American Student Organization (LASO) raised $1,400 at its annual Valentine’s Day fundraiser for the nonprofit.
The Bowdoin students on Saturday helped Mano en Mano raise more than $1,000 at its 5th annual Spring Fling to fund a $1,000 scholarship it gives to one college-bound Latino student every year for four years. So far, Yaffe says his organization has funded $24,000 worth of scholarships for six students. At the Fling, Bowdoin students cooked pizza, prepared raffle prizes (which ranged from donations of sausage to tanning salon coupons) and hosted the front table. More than 200 people came out for the potluck, from three-year-old children to people in their 70s, both Latino and non-Latino, according to Ilyas.
The Bowdoin students were able to speak Spanish, listen to live Flamenco music and 80s rock, and eat Mexican mole and rice. “It was homemade Mexican food,” Mayer-Hirshfeld reminisced. “It made me happy.”
They also donated $100 from the $250 budget they were given for the trip to the Latino Scholarship Fund. Leaving Milbridge at 12:30 a.m., they arrived back on campus at 4:30 a.m. after playing Catch Phrase and singing in the van to pass the time on the long, foggy drive home.
“It was really cool to see how tight this community is,” Vasquez observed. Mayer-Hirshfeld agreed, commenting that despite the many years the Latino population has been in Milbridge and nearby towns, they have not lost their identity or culture.
For his part, Yaffe appreciated the extra hands. “It helps us tremendously because we have a very small staff and a small board,” he said. “And it’s really great to have people come in with an outside perspective and see a community that’s so unique and special.”