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People Around Us

For McKellar, volunteerism about helping — and giving back

By Holly Vanorse Spicer | Jan 14, 2021
Courtesy of: Alison McKellar Alison McKellar, left, helps loads box bound for NuDay.

Camden — During her junior year of high school, Alison McKellar experienced a trip that laid the path for her future.

McKellar, 36, spent time growing up between the towns of Union and Camden, and graduated from Camden Hills Regional High School in 2002.

After time away from the Midcoast, the mother of two young boys returned to the Camden area and over time has become a recognizable face, and familiar name to the people of the coastal town; both as a member of the Select Board, and as a community volunteer.

It was during her time at Camden Hills that McKellar had what she called a transformative experience in El Salvador.

“As a junior at Camden Hills Regional High School I was invited to join a group heading to El Salvador from Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Parish in Camden,” McKellar said.

She said in that trip she saw true poverty for the first time. She became friends with a young, deaf girl whose family was too poor to attend school.

“I got to sense how fortunate I was to have been born where I was,” she said.

After that, McKellar dedicated herself seriously to learning Spanish with the hope of being a voice for those less fortunate throughout the hemisphere.

“My translation skills led me to a variety of places working and volunteering for non-governmental organizations. My favorite by far was Colombia,” she said.

Coming home

When she returned to the Camden area, it was not the end of her work. McKellar learned of other causes and issues at local levels, and also discovered that despite having her roots planted, she could still help those in need overseas.

Six years ago, McKellar began collecting donations and making the trek to New Hampshire to bring them to NuDay Syria for shipment overseas.

NuDay Syria is a nonprofit, non-government organization founded by Nadia Alawa in 2013. NuDay works to secure sustainable, dignified aid for women and children experiencing humanitarian crises worldwide.

The organization’s work currently is focused in Syria, Lebabon and Yemen.

Of working with NuDay, McKellar said It has been an evolution.

“I never imagined I’d still be doing this six years later when I started taking loads of donations down to New Hampshire,” she said.

She said she thought people would have less and less to give, and that people would become tired of the idea.

“The opposite has happened,” she said.

Locally, McKellar and NuDay have developed partnerships with the Mid-Coast Solid Waste transfer station, Pen Bay Medical Center, Waldo County General Hospital, Quarry Hill, and others.

“I kept having to rent bigger, and bigger U-Haul trucks as the word got out and people started seeing photos of things arriving in Syria,” she said.

Four years ago, McKellar said they stopped driving everything to New Hampshire for shipments, and started sending 40-foot long shipping containers straight from the Midcoast.

Despite having been working with NuDay for years before, she said that is when she really feels the Maine chapter of the organization essentially began.

COVID-19 impact

The pandemic has, as with most things worldwide, impacted the process, which created a few hiccups.

“Luckily, we were able to send out a container right before schools were released in the spring,” McKellar said.

During the spring months, the organization was able to take a break with sorting.

The warehouse used to house donations awaiting shipment was turned into a pop-up volunteer mask-making factory at the onset of the pandemic. McKellar said while it did add some challenges for NuDay, it added new connections.

Once the mask-making need diminished, donations for Syria were overflowing, and McKellar said there was no choice, but to start things back up.

“We’ve started bringing in high school groups who already spend some time together, and that are able to follow the mask-wearing guidelines,” she said.

“Some things just can’t be done over Zoom, and this is one of them,” she said.

McKellar also said the pandemic forced them to get more organized in terms of volunteer recruitment.

“A huge amount of credit for this project goes to some of NuDay Syria’s other volunteers like Chris Mazza, Angie Ferris, Ashley Freeland and many others over the years, who have been able to keep the warehouse organized in small groups,” she said.

It was McKellar’s work with NuDay that led her to run for Camden’s Select Board.

“I have always been really interested in waste reduction and motivated by the idea of saving useful things from being thrown away,” she said.

She said it also was a large part of what motivated her with her work with NuDay, being able to divert hundreds of thousands of pounds of material from the waste stream by connecting it with people in need of medical and humanitarian supplies.

“Because of the structure of town government, the only way onto the Midcoast Solid Waste Board of Directors was by running for the Camden Select Board,” she said.

Close attention

The more McKellar started paying attention to a variety of town issues while participating in the budget committee, the more she felt her voice would be more useful on the board, than from the outside.

“Most people in Camden don’t understand we [the board] don’t get to decide very many things ourselves," she said. "But, we do get to make recommendations for voters, and we have an excellent platform for asking questions, and shaping the discussion."

She added the broad range of skills and personalities of the board members helps them work — and listen — well together.

“It’s an added bonus that three of us have actually known each other since preschool. We went to school together in Camden on and off, so we have a lot of shared experiences, but still come at things from different angles,” she said.

She added she enjoys the variety of issues that have risen, and she is always learning to look at seemingly boring things, such as sidewalks and storm drains, in a new way.

In 2020, she was elected to another term on the select board and currently sits as vice-chairwoman.

The local environmental issue was just one of the platforms McKellar spoke on during her campaign for reelection.

One of the most common discussions in Camden has been the Megunticook Watershed, and the dams.

Fish tales

A few years ago, McKellar visited a fish ladder at Damariscotta Mills and became curious as to whether there were any fish trying to get around the dam in the Camden Harbor.

“A number of people told me I shouldn’t expect to find anything,” she said.

She said much to her surprise, she did.

“I spent hours trying to look from above the surface until I finally started sticking my iPhone underwater for brief periods, and realized how much more I could see that way,” she said.

She said she has always felt a slightly obsessive need to document things with photographic evidence, whether it be inequality in Colombia, or roadside trash in Camden.

At first, she said it was just about documenting alewives. She came up with a system that allowed her to attach a GoPro to a long pole, and run a cable back to her phone. In doing this, she was able to see a preview, and know what was worth filming.

“There is so much going on down there that I never realized,” she said.

McKellar has seen rainbow smelt, striped bass, blueback herring, brook trout, tomcods, eels, and more.

In 2018, after the death of her sister, Kristen, McKellar said her time spent filming around the harbor and dam helped her to have a way of looking at the world, which helped her change her perspective.

“Even just the barnacles seem to have a story to tell, and watching the goings on in different parts of the harbor is really therapeutic for me,” she said.

She said it was a mix of scientific research and meditation.

“I’ve also been able to learn a lot more about the harbor and I’ve talked to so many people that I may have never gotten to know otherwise; from elver fisherman, to tourists, to locals of all backgrounds and political persuasions,” she said.

All of the videos she takes are posted to Facebook and YouTube. She said in doing so, it has been a fun way of learning from the rest of the community, and that she hopes to keep improving and learning.

Camden, a special place

McKellar credits the ability to do her volunteer work to her husband Vincent Jones' hard work and great job with Yachting Solutions, and renting rooms in their Camden home.

“It has been the only way we can afford to live in Camden,” she said.

She added she would like to get back to working outside of the home, in a more traditional job setting at some point. Before the birth of her second child, McKellar taught Spanish at the Watershed School.

“We’ve met so many wonderful, and interesting people," she said. "I loved getting the chance to see Camden through the eyes of such a diverse group; from foreign-exchange students, to Camden natives whose families go back generations."

She said that there is a housing crisis in Camden and many large houses with spare bedrooms. She encourages those with the space to consider advertising a room for rent, even if money is not needed.

“You can take your time and find short- or long-term people who are a good fit,” she said.

“I receive more emails every time I post a room than I will ever have a chance to respond to. And you can feel good about helping to keep Camden a place that is accessible to more than just the rich and famous,” she said.

McKellar hopes she is teaching her sons, Colton, 10, and Mason, 8, to understand the other side of an argument and try to think the best of people. She also hopes they will speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, including animals and the natural environment, as well as to apologize, and forgive easily, and often.

To watch videos of McKellar's underwater explorations, go to youtube.com/user/alisonmckellar/videos.

A list of needed items for donation to NuDay Syria can be found at nudaysyria.org/container-love.

Alison McKellar prepares to load a container for shipment to Syria. (Courtesy of: Alison McKellar)
Alison McKellar explores on a paddleboard. (Courtesy of: Alison McKellar)
Pictured is an underwater view of Blueback herring. (Courtesy of: Alison McKellar)
NuDay Syria volunteer group packs a container for shipment to Syria. (Courtesy of: Alison McKellar)
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Comments (3)
Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Jan 19, 2021 22:24

Dale, there are so many people who have contributed to the work we do through NuDay Syria that it would be impossible to thank them all. Michael was very generous in donating the use of the warehouse space for the first year to see if it could work out, but the organization has been paying rent for over a year. We fundraise for the lease payment which is $500/month. Many people have donated space temporarily over the 6 years we’ve been doing this in Maine but we reached a size and scale that this is simply not a reasonable option (unless someone knows of free warehouse space). Last year we were able to pay the rent by selling things that we had rescued from the trash! Exciting stuff.



Posted by: DALE HAYWARD | Jan 15, 2021 10:03

I fail to see mention that Michael Mullins, if I am not mistaken, donated the use of his warehouse in Camden.



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jan 15, 2021 02:56

Vincent, Alison, Colton and Mason are an amazing TEAM. They are the kind of example we need to see as we move ahead as a community, as a nation and as a world TOGETHER! And, yes folks, they are people of faith in action!!



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