When students in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District need a healthy snack in class, they turn to the Friends of Mascoma.
When families need food at home, they turn to the Friends of Mascoma.
When teachers need something extra, such as warm socks for kindergartners, they turn to the Friends of Mascoma.
When high school graduates head off for further education, many turn to the Friends of Mascoma.
“It’s nice to say ‘We’ve got you. Don’t worry about it,’” said Kate Plumley Stewart, the group’s interim executive director, founding board member and former board vice president. “We will come to help you. It’s that barn-raising-type mentality.”
The Friends of Mascoma Foundation (FOM) has its roots in social and community efforts throughout the school district and has grown into a respected volunteer organization providing scholarships, awarding mini-grants to teachers, sponsoring art in the schools, donating musical instruments and establishing food pantries. FOM has two paid employees and relies heavily on volunteers, who worked 1,800 hours in 2021.
Founded in 2014 by community-minded residents, including Mascoma Valley alumni, the group supports the district’s schools and families in the Upper Valley communities of Enfield, Canaan, Dorchester, Grafton and Orange.
“Our initial goals were to do mini-grants for teachers, scholarships and programs and initiatives for the schools,” said Plumley Stewart.
But when FOM learned some children where sharing their lunches with hungry classmates, volunteers stepped up.
With help from the New Hampshire Food Bank, Friends of Mascoma established food pantries in Enfield and Canaan, called Friends Feeding Friends.
In 2021, the program distributed more than 94,000 pounds of food to 1,122 families.
“We really work against the stigma of accessing food,” Plumley Stewart said. “We do not have an income requirement. We say ‘If you need food, you come and you take it.’”
Students can take food home from pantries in the high school and Indian River Middle School, but they also can grab snacks from tables in school common areas. In the elementary schools, teachers and guidance counselors disperse snacks provided by the community food pantries.
“Having the food readily available to all the kids makes a big difference in helping remove that stigma of being disadvantaged,” said district Superintendent Amanda Isabelle. “It’s just there for everyone. If you are hungry, please have a piece of fruit.”
Friends of Mascoma receives funding from grants, including a three-year operating grant from the Charitable Foundation. It also enjoys wide support from community donors. The group was the top online fundraiser in this year’s NH Gives campaign, raising $66,000 from 213 donors.
“We are big fans of $5 donations,” said Plumley Stewart. “It gives everybody in the community a sense of pride.”
FOM’s mini-grants have funded field trips, special projects, even a washing machine and dryer at the Enfield Village School to help elementary school kids who get wet or spill something on their winter coats.
Kindergarten teacher Amy Stewart (no relation to Kate) calls Friends of Mascoma a valuable ally. Mini-grants help her take her kids outside in all weather throughout the school year. Her first grant was for 20 pairs of woolen socks for daily winter walks. Another was for umbrellas so the children could play in the rain (and learn how to use umbrellas safely).
“We’ve seen bald eagles, deer…there are so many opportunities for them to learn about the world around them that they might not have if we were sitting inside,” Stewart said.
A third grant is helping build an outdoor classroom pavilion.
“We have fewer behavior issues to deal with when we are outside,” Stewart said. “The kids are more engaged and I know I’m a more focused teacher when I am outside.”
Since 2016, Friends of Mascoma has distributed nearly $35,000 in mini-grants. It also donated more than $9,000 for a musical instrument bank so students who cannot afford to rent instruments can participate in school band programs.
And local students have been awarded more than $118,000 in scholarships for college or other learning beyond high school.
Kylie Sumner, of Canaan, received a scholarship in 2017. She is entering a combined Masters’s and Ph.D. program at the UMass Chan Medical School to study infectious disease research, immunology and microbiology.
“The fact that they put so much effort to supporting all of the students and trying to get them to reach potential and do whatever it is they want to do, I think is really important,” Sumner said. “Having that support meant you had someone in your corner rooting for you to go further and get the education and reach all of your goals. It’s really special.”
Isabelle said that in addition to offering financial support, Friends of Mascoma volunteers are good role models.
“At career fairs and career days, they show students that even though this is a rural community, you can still be very successful here,” she said. “It also shows the importance of public service.”
The group’s community-building efforts extend to organizing events like a “meet the new principal” evening at Enfield Village School.
Many founders and current leaders of Friends of Mascoma attended the district’s schools, left for college, lived elsewhere, then chose to return to the area to raise families and give back to their community.
“I liked growing up in the area,” said Holly West, Plumley Stewart’s sister and a former president and founding member of the group. “I had a good experience in the Mascoma School District.”
West said FOM has played an important role in easing some stress and food insecurity brought on by pandemic-related job losses.
“I think that everyone has been struggling and many people continue to struggle, but the struggles would have been far more severe,” she said.
FOM President and Board member Bridget Labrie, also a Mascoma Valley alum who moved back to the district, said the group works hard to make sure residents know a wide range of help is available.
“It’s all about access and trying to help people understand they have this opportunity,” she said.
Friends of Mascoma sees other community organizations as partners to better the community.
“The Mascoma towns have various groups that can have overlapping goals. We work to increase collaboration as that is a large piece of what we do,” Labrie said. “Our goal is to match talent and resources with needs.”