A pioneering partnership between the Central Lincoln County YMCA and Lincoln County government is taking shape this month, as the two organizations work together to bring the Y’s successful community navigator program to communities across the entire county.
“I believe so much in this program,” said Casey Clark Kelley, CEO of CLC YMCA in Damariscotta. “I’ve seen what it can really do and how it changes people’s lives, especially when they’re at a point of despair … I’m excited to be able to finally share that our county has invested in this program,” she said.
The countywide expansion of the program has been funded for its first three years by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Its precursor, the community navigator program at the CLC YMCA, has been running since December 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made community needs that “had always been there” particularly apparent, highlighting the need for a navigator service, said Clark Kelley.
Boothbay’s Community Resource Council had already implemented a community navigator Program, helping to spark the idea for a similar model in the greater Damariscotta area.
When people are struggling, said Clark Kelley, they can have a hard time processing even what’s available in terms of assistance.
“Lots of folks in this type of need don’t have any point of reference on where to look, who to contact, or how to make that phone call,” said Lincoln County Administrator Carrie Kipfer.
They may also be burdened by the stigma associated with needing help, Kipfer said.
“There’s a lot of pride in Maine people, and a lot of grit,” said Karen-Ann Hagar-Smith, director of outreach and community navigation at the CLC YMCA.
That’s where the community navigator program comes in.
“We’re a hub,” Hagar-Smith said. “We’re not a crisis program, but we do connect people with services. I’m like a human GPS.”
The service can help people in need access various types of assistance, said Kipfer, noting that the types of help offered vary because “need is individual.” If a need is demonstrated in Lincoln County and an appropriate service exists to address it, Clark Kelly added, the community navigator’s role is to help residents in need access that assistance.
This includes help with filling out paperwork, determining eligibility for benefits, finding a mentor, applying for tax assistance, acquiring food, clothing, and housing, finding child care, applying for other kinds of financial assistance, and much more.
“If you need help with anything, just call. If we’re not the right place for you, we’ll tell you where to go,” said Clark Kelley.
Waldoboro Town Manager Julie Keizer first introduced Kiper to Clark Kelley in early 2023, and talks about expanding the service to the whole county began soon after. Waldoboro was already involved in the program at the time as a partner to the YMCA, providing a model for how governments might work with the organization to broaden the program’s reach.
Joining forces with county government will allow the Y to extend the program’s reach beyond its service area, allowing residents in previously ineligible communities such as Alna, Dresden, Somerville, Wiscasset, and Westport Island access to the program, said Clark Kelley.
Such a collaboration is unprecedented, noted Kipfer.
“This isn’t a typical county service. I don’t know of any other county in the state of Maine that offers a program like this,” she said.
But the collaboration makes sense, said Hagar-Smith.
“People ask why it’s the Y doing this,” she said. “Well, why wouldn’t the Y do it?”
The “solid connections” and strong relationships that the Y has already cultivated in the community are a vital component to the program’s success, and something that the county government cannot necessarily match on their own, said Kipfer.
It is these connections and relationships, Hagar-Smith said, that allow the program to make such a difference in the lives of those who reach out.
“It’s the community helping the community,” she said.
Giving the program a home inside the YMCA makes aid more accessible. Kipfer said it was intentional to keep the program separate from law enforcement and not house it in the Lincoln County Courthouse in Wiscasset, where other county programs are sometimes run but which carries a “negative connotation” for some individuals.
“We wanted it to be something that every member of the community is comfortable to access,” she said.
Providing aid from the Y also allows for more anonymity than a town office or courthouse can provide, said Clark Kelley.
“When you come to the Y, you could be coming here for a fitness class, you could be dropping off your kid at pre-K, or you could be asking for help,” she explained.
Participation in the program is completely confidential, with any personal data stored on a secure server and inquiries made through a separate phone number that is different from the Y’s main line.
Based on the success that the CLC Y’s navigator program has already seen, Kipfer said she anticipates that the countywide implementation of the program will be “wildly successful.” Then, she hopes, the program can serve as a model for similar programs across other counties in Maine.
“There’s a definite need in all the counties,” she said.
For now, the expansion of the program within Lincoln County is a timely development to help residents struggling with seasonal costs, like heating bills, access assistance, said Clark Kelley.
Hagar-Smith said she is looking forward to growing more relationships within the community and reaching more individuals in need as the program grows. The team is currently hiring for another full-time staff member, an addition that Hagar-Smith said will enable them to effectively serve the whole county.
Hagar-Smith, Kipfer, and Clark Kelley emphasize that the program is not a crisis line and those in need of emergency services should call 911. For non-emergency needs, they encourage residents to call the navigator service at 403-4116 for confidential assistance or stop by the CLC YMCA, which is open 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays at 525 Main St. in Damariscotta.