Max Zakian, the Climate Action Planning Fellow, reflects on his time spent at Maine Needs and his role in service as a person who grew up in the greater Portland area.
Since much of the Resilience Corps’ service is in response to climate-related issues, I think it can be easy for our challenges to seem insurmountable. I operate on the assumption that most people my age feel a certain anxiety, even a dread, when they think of the work that needs to be done, from climate resilience to housing insecurity. My own concerns drove me to pursue a Service Year, drawn by the potential of GPCOG’s objective to create change through community-driven solutions. I wanted to work directly with the people I hoped to help.
AmeriCorps enables individuals to serve in unique positions across the country, adding their capacity to communities they might never have even otherwise known. But, as the members of my cohort draft action plans and attend Zoom meetings from home, I imagine it’s easy to feel isolated from the communities we hope to serve, communities we barely even know. I think that’s why we have Days of Service: to start building our relationships with the communities we hope to help. Our first Day of Service was spent volunteering at Maine Needs, a non-profit providing necessities to vulnerable members of the community, asylum seekers new to Maine and anyone looking for help in meeting their basic needs.
Because of the pandemic and the spread of our Host Sites across the Greater Portland region, this was the first time I’d met any of my fellow Fellows in the Resilience Corps in person. Standing in a room of people I barely knew, I wondered if any of them still felt like newcomers here. If so, I hoped they knew I have that same insecurity sometimes, even though I’m one of two people in our cohort originally from Maine. As we assembled in the front office of an organization I hadn’t even heard about until this November, I wondered if I was an outsider here. It felt detached, even selfish, to volunteer in a community I did not have a personal relationship with. Then I saw the board hanging on the back wall displaying the quantity of donations received in chalk. For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at the number of socks they’d distributed; 12,000 in a city of 66,000 seemed like a lot of socks. I tore my eyes away as they guided us through a tour of the building and eventually found myself standing near a table of Black and Brown dolls. I couldn’t believe how hopeful those dolls made me; this little symbol of the effort Maine Needs put into making new residents feel at home.
As I took everything in, I wondered if maybe volunteering is a bit selfish sometimes. I’ve heard people discuss the great pains they take to aid their community, as if a form of sacrifice is necessary for acts of service to truly better one’s community. I think that couldn’t be further from the truth, because I acknowledge I personally benefited from my time at Maine Needs, and by spending time observing what is being done with or without me. Understanding the sheer scale of needs this organization fulfills, the network they’ve built between other non-profits in the city, was beneficial to me. As a Middle Eastern person living in a predominantly white state, seeing that children of color were entering a community that helped them see themselves in little ways every day was a reassurance I hadn’t realized I needed. For a few hours, I interacted directly with the communities of Maine, employees and volunteers and countless people dropping off supplies. And maybe it wasn’t an entirely selfless day of service, because for a few hours, despite the dread we all sometimes face, I felt only reassurance with every new bag of goods coming through the doors.
Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, we become resilient by taking small steps every day. My time spent at Maine Needs reminded me that people don’t need to wait for things to change if they have the drive to serve. We can show up for our community through these small steps. Next week, there will be more clothes to sort, more meals to cook, and more families to help. And next week, clothes will be sorted, people will be fed, and a few more new residents will start to feel like Mainers. Through these acts of service, even people new to this community can begin to build the relationships they need to serve. They learn that service itself is a relationship, one that teaches us not just to listen, but to identify what questions to ask. As I serve, most of the people I meet are just as worried as I am about what climate change will do to their communities. My role is not to assure them that I’ll provide what they need; it’s to ask them what they need from me.
A Maine native from Biddeford, Max is excited to collaborate with the communities he grew up in as they prepare for the effects of climate change. Studying International Relations at the University of Maine taught him the necessity in bringing as many perspectives to the table as possible when crafting any form of policy. His career experience has focused on providing direct service to individuals and communities as a whole, from interning at the Code Enforcement Department in the City of Biddeford, to working as a journalist and fundraising organizer for Gyumri Without Makeshift Shelters, a non-profit housing earthquake survivors in Armenia. Through his experience, Max is inspired most by the ability of local institutions to make an impact in their community every single day. He sees service itself as a relationship stakeholders build together and is certain that climate change will be solved primarily through the grassroots movements he sees sprouting all across his home state. In his free time, Max enjoys hiking, writing, board games, and meeting new dogs.