Compassion, according to psychotherapist Beverly Engel in Psychology Today magazine, “is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person or oneself. Often confused with empathy, compassion has the added element of having a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another.”
The definition aptly fits the five Maine women profiled here, who have built their lives around demanding situations that require compassion – and love and empathy and the desire to leave the world a better place.
‘Sharing memories, celebrating life.’
Occupation: Owner and director of Autumn Green Funeral Home in Alfred
It takes a special type of person to look death in the face every day and, with warmth and kindness, help those who are grieving at a time when they are their most vulnerable.
When Tammy Chadbourne opened Autumn Green Funeral Home in Alfred six years ago, she did so realizing she wanted to offer families something different from the cold, sales-driven environments she had worked in for 20 years as an embalmer, staff manager and funeral director for funeral homes in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
“I teach my staff, ‘We’re the first on the scene and how we act and how we look toward death’” has an effect on how the family views a loved one’s passing, she said. “We show respect. We don’t hurry. We talk and visit and go over what comes next. Then, when it comes time to leave, we encourage families to help, if they want to. All our gurneys have a quilt and a pillow. We never cover their face when we come out of a house. If it’s raining or snowing, the family will say, ‘That’s good. Let them feel it on their face one last time.’”
It’s these small acts of kindness that seem to make a difference.
“She genuinely cares. She’s very kind-hearted. She really wants to comfort you,” Kevin Haskell of North Waterboro, who lost both his father and stepmother within three months of each other last year, said. “She runs her business like she’s part of your family. She takes care of things. It’s not just all business with her.”
Haskell said she invited his family in for coffee and cookies, sat down and talked with them to really get to know them.
“We serve one family at a time and they get the whole house. Everybody comes in the kitchen. Kids aren’t afraid to come here. It’s not a sterile, rigid environment; it’s a home. That’s the way it used to be,” Chadbourne said. “It’s really an honor. They’re entrusting a loved one into our care. We get to learn all about that person, hear their stories and walk with them.”
Helping parents through daunting challenge
Occupation: Director of Southern Maine Parent Awareness in Sanford
For parents of children with special needs, navigating the public school system and ensuring that their child receives the best possible education every step of the way can be a daunting challenge.
Sue Henri-MacKenzie of Sanford has been helping parents through this at-times frustrating and emotional process for more than 20 years.
“She is very passionate in her advocacy for students with disabilities,” Ruth Venell, co-director of special education in School Administrative District 60, which serves students in North Berwick, Berwick and Lebanon, said. “She shares that with parents and helps them advocate for their own children.”
As the director of Southern Maine Parent Awareness in Sanford, Henri-MacKenzie and two family resource and support specialists meet with parents and their children individually, attend meetings with school administrators and teachers, and provide support education and referral information to parents.
“We look at their Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and make sure what’s in the plan is being implemented,” said Henri-MacKenzie, who advocated for her own three children when they were young. “Then we teach people how to advocate for themselves. It’s a mentoring model. We may hear from them again as their child transitions through some of the bigger steps, like from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school and beyond. A disability affects a child over their entire life, not just when they’re in school.”
Henri-MacKenzie said she comes to work every day knowing, even though the funding comes and goes, that she’s among a small group of committed volunteers who help set these kids – some of whom may not otherwise have a voice of their own – and their parents on the right course, for a lifetime.
A second chance
Occupation: Founder and director of Runs with Wolves Sanctuary in Limington
Tazlina nuzzles her mother’s face and places her paw in her mother’s hand. Lomasi rolls on the ground at her mother’s feet and looks up for a belly rub. Anoki sniffs hungrily for a favorite dog treat.
But these are no ordinary dogs and this is no ordinary mother.
Former photojournalist Brenda Foster of Limington has been rescuing pure wolves from lives of abuse and neglect or from homes unable to properly care for a wild animal for nearly 25 years.
Tazlina came from a man in Alaska who had bought the gray wolf pup as a gift for his new wife. When the pup became sick, they were unable to care for her and, at 6 months, she came to live with Foster, who nursed her back to health at the wolf sanctuary she had established in Limington. That was eight years ago.
Lomasi and Anoki were rescued last summer from a neglectful home nearby Foster said she had been monitoring for years. She said she was told they were hybrids, but, in her opinion, having spent six months working with them, they’re “all wolf.”
“Man has taken it upon themselves to breed wild animals with domestic animals to make money. People have funny ideas about that. They think it’s cool or that they will be a good watchdog, but pure wolves do not like people,” Foster said. “They’re not meant to be kept as pets.”
Recently downgraded from federally endangered to federally threatened, the gray wolf was once considered a threat to man and a high price was placed on its head in the 19th century to eradicate the animal from those parts of the United States where there was a perceived clash between man and wolf. The government-sponsored effort was an overwhelming success, much to the dismay of those dedicated to the protection of wildlife.
Christine St. Pierre, a Runs with Wolves Sanctuary volunteer and board member, said researchers have come to realize through the study of wolves in captivity that the animal poses less of a threat to man than the coyote, which has thrived in Maine and other states in the absence of its natural enemy. Efforts have been made in some states to reintroduce the wolf to the wild, but the idea has not been without controversy, she said.
Unsuitable as a pet and unable to return to the wild, the animals get a second chance at the sanctuary, Foster said, by providing them a large, enclosed natural environment, interaction with other wolves, veterinary care and a daily supply of food, treats and love.
“She’s like their mother,” St. Pierre said as Foster interacted with the nearly 150-pound animals in their escape-proof pens. “You can almost hear them saying, ‘Hi, Mom.’ ‘Treat?’ She’s just amazing with them.”
Runs with Wolf Sanctuary experienced profound loss the past year that has affected not only the volunteers, but also the wolves. Four “trusted and beloved friends” died of natural causes, including 14-year-old Spirit, who joined his “soul mate” Denali, who died previously, and “house wolf” Timber, a gentle giant who preferred being inside the house and wiled many of his days away on Foster’s couch.
“We’re still healing,” Foster said, “but having the two new ones makes it easier. They’re just awesome.”
Inspired by those in need
Occupation: Director of the Maine Hunger Initiative and Advocacy at Preble Street in Portland
A friend and an advocate: The homeless, the hungry, the poor and the hurting need both.
Donna Yellen of Portland is one of many such volunteers who every day not only helps serve food and provide shelter to those who need it, but also works in the social service and social justice system to improve social conditions and empower those who are treated like outcasts in our society.
“In this resourceful country that we have, allowing people to experience hunger and homelessness is completely unacceptable. I’m a firm believer we don’t have to have the kind of poverty we have in our country.” Yellen said. “That empowers me in my work and hopefully my work empowers them.”
Yellen was recognized by the Maine Council of Churches, of which she also serves as a board member, last fall for her 16 years of social work and advocacy with Preble Street in Portland. Preble Street is a social service agency whose mission is to provide services to empower people experiencing homelessness, hunger and poverty and to advocate for solutions to these problems.
“It’s her job but it’s also her passion,” said Martha Stein, development director for the Maine Council Churches, which aims “to inspire congregations and persons of faith to unite in good works that build a culture of justice, compassion and peace.”
According to Stein, Yellen demonstrates a compassion for others in and through her work, which, most notably, includes registering homeless people to vote, organizing bi-annual homeless vigils and, recently, the gathering of support for the creation of a home for homeless women in Portland. Her work with the Maine Hunger Initiative seeks to determine the root causes and find potential solutions to address hunger in our state.
She was influenced to pursue social work at the age of 17 when her mother gave her a copy of Thomas Merton’s “The Sign of Jonas,” which emphasized “the importance of removing oneself from the world before being able to make changes to it,” Yellon said.
As a young woman, she left a job in computer science and technology with corporate IBM and moved to the Appalachian Mountain region of Kentucky, about which trappist monk Merton wrote.
“I knew that’s where she knew poverty in the United States was really severe,” she said, adding that once she began working with the people there, she never looked back.
Every day more than 900 meals are served to homeless and low-income adults, children, and families at eight soup kitchens operated by Preble Street in Portland, according to the organization’s website.
And every day, Yellen said, it is those individuals who inspire her.
“The people that come there are amazing and remarkable. They are the most funny, sweet and kind human beings,” Yellen said. “Working with people who experience poverty is one of the most incredible experiences, seeing the way they live their lives and the beauty the bring to it.”
Quietly, making a difference
Sister Thelma Bouchard
Residence: South Portland
Occupation: Retired Sister of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Portland
Teacher. Student. Now, Sister Thelma Bouchard of South Portland is in her third career, which includes speaking to children and young adults and encouraging them in the faith and providing support through letter writing, visitation and prayer to men and women interested in becoming a priest or nun.
The Aroostook County native first dedicated her life to the mission of Christian education at the age of 20 when she joined the community of The Sisters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rimouski, Quebec, and began teaching at an Indian Day School nearby, the start of a 37-year teaching career in both public and private schools that called her back to her hometown of Frenchville, where she taught for 16 years, then on to Millinocket, Sanford, Plattsburg, N.Y., and Biddeford.
Her life changed dramatically in 1987 when she began working with AIDS patients and the poor, the needy and less fortunate in the Portland area, a mission that transcended religion and politics and united her, fellow volunteers and the people they helped in God’s love.
“I was green. I thought I could catch it over the phone,” she said. “So, I decided I needed to get informed.”
She attended a conference on the subject that November where she met her first mentor, Zane Blair, a young man living with AIDS. And while he was her primary teacher the 20 years she worked with him, he wasn’t her only teacher – they all were.
“I see this young man, a beautiful young man,” Bouchard paused, love, admiration and sadness playing across her face in one brief instant, as she reflected on the few short months she knew one of the men she helped, but, she said, he really helped her. “He taught me how to live and how to die. He’d say, ‘Sister, have you prayed today? It’s time for you to stop working and start praying.’”
She said she was overwhelmed by the selflessness she saw, men declining financial or other help so that it could be given to some one else “worse off” than them.
“They’re dying and they’re worried about taking care of everyone else,” she said.
If the people she helped were apprehensive at first in the presence of a Catholic nun, their assumptions were quickly dismissed, she said, when she reached out to help them.
“Aren’t you going to condemn me?” she said some would ask, knowing how different their lifestyle was to hers. And she’d say, “No, son, we’re all sinners. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life. I’m here to help you.”
But, she said, if they asked about God, she would speak of his love and mercy.
The greatest lesson she has learned so far, she said, came from one of her first students, a 5-year-old kindergartner, the youngest and smallest in a family with 10 boys.
“He said, ‘Sister, I talk to God sometimes and sometimes he talks to me, but if I want God to talk to me,’ and he held his hands up to his ears like this,” she said, cupping her hands behind her own eyes in the quiet of her modest apartment in South Portland, “‘I have to be very, very, very quiet.”
That’s when she realized she was always so busy, and she said it is something she would remember her entire life, “I said, ‘Oh, I need to quiet down.’”
She said she has seen God’s provision in every area of her life and in every ministry – including the four winters from 1996 to 2000 she spent teaching English to Mexican migrant workers in Florida – and continues to rely on His guidance.
“She has lived a colorful, quiet and compassionate life,” Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said. “She’s still very active, very sharp and continues to work with people. She talks in terms of being in her third career, but she says she does it, in part, ‘to keep herself out of mischief.’”
Andrea Rose is a writer who lives in Lebanon with her husband and ?three children.
Tammy Chadbourne, owner and director of Autumn Green Funeral Home in AlfredSue Henri-MacKenzie, director of Southern Maine Parent Awareness in Sanford.
Brenda Foster, founder and director of Runs with Wolves Sanctuary in Limington.Donna Yellen, director of the Maine Hunger Initiative and Advocacy at Preble Street in Portland.Sister Thelma Bouchard, retired Sister of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Portland.