Innovation in Education: The 'Gracies'

The Challenge

Cost is an obstacle to higher education. “An Educated Workforce for a 21st Century Economy” (2010) notes that financing college is a major concern of Maine students wishing to further their education and careers. Once a student graduates, loan debt often forces them to move from the rural areas of the state in search of higher salaries. Beyond traditional scholarships, how can we help these students overcome these barriers?

The Idea

In 2001, a donor approached the Maine Community Foundation to talk about a number of ideas. She had read about our grantmaking activities in downeast Maine and was interested in establishing a fund that might encourage college graduates from Washington County to set down roots in their home communities.

Working with community foundation staff, the donor set up the Gracie Fund, a student loan reimbursement program for graduates who are building a professional and personal life in Washington County. In addition to helping offset the burden of student loans, a significant goal of the fund is to help the “Gracies” connect to the communities in which they live and work.

The Innovation

Community service is key. Participants develop a volunteer action plan based on their interests and skills. These plans might entail working with a local development group to attract businesses to the area; assisting in designing a comprehensive plan for a town; or volunteering with a local historical society or social services agency. Many “Gracies” get connected to the area’s leaders and organizations through the Sunrise County Economic Council, which manages the program for the Maine Community Foundation.

A Story of Impact

Inez Lombardo moved to Washington County from New York City in 1986 and worked at a series of seasonal and fisheries jobs. She returned to college in 2001 after Stinson’s Sardine Factory in Prospect Harbor closed. Lombardo was 59 when she graduated from the University of Maine at Machias and applied to the Gracie Fund.

Inez LombardoWhile a Gracie, Lombardo worked to establish the Machias Marketplace, serving as its “market coordinator.” The market, which began as a drop-off point for the Tide Mill Organic Farm’s community-supported agriculture shares, quickly grew into something much larger. According to an April 2010 article in the Bangor Daily News, the local buying club linked up with nine local farms and the Crown of Maine food cooperative and tripled its membership in a year. “Many people think that because we are a poor county, we don’t have good food,” Lombardo told the reporter. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Today, Lombardo continues to coordinate the market, which brought in $3,500 in sales per month over the winter of 2011. Demand continues to grow, so much so that last summer she began an à la carte table for smaller growers with extra produce to balance out the offerings from larger farms. Lombardo’s long-range goal is to open a not-for-profit retail market.

The Numbers

Since its establishment in 2002, the Gracie Fund has helped 27 students pay off a total of $233,000 in college debt. Many have stayed in Washington County. Others have left to pursue further education, but plan to return, inspired by their experience. Nine of the students participated in the Washington County Leadership Institute.

A number of nonprofits have benefited from the volunteering requirement in the Gracie program. Current recipients run a snowshoeing club for kids at the Rose M. Gaffney School in Machias; teach preventive physical therapy classes throughout Washington County; have helped launch a clothing swap program with a Jonesport church; and volunteer for the East Machias Library.

For Further Reference

Erin Dillon and Kevin Carey, “Drowning in Debt: The Emerging Student Loan Crisis,” Lumina Foundation report, July 9, 2009.

George Mitchell Institute, “An Educated Workforce for a 21st Century Economy,” September 2010

Sharon Kiley Mack, “Local-source marketplace thrives in Machias,” Bangor Daily News, April 6, 2010.

Mike Tipping, “No. 2 ranking in student debt nothing for Maine to be proud of,” Kennebec Journal, April 18, 2011

“Points of Impact” is a series of short reports on Maine Community Foundation grantmaking and scholarship work. Download this report in PDF format

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