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Dixie's Drive to Feed The County

“Hey there. How ya doing?”

Dixie Shaw, the director of Hunger and Relief Services for Catholic Charities Maine, cheerfully greets driver after driver as they pull up next to a truck loaded with boxes of food.  It’s a breezy March day in Presque Isle, with temperatures barely inching into the teens, but you would never know it by Dixie’s warm demeanor.

“Hi there! How many are you picking up?” she asks the driver of a regional transportation van that has rolled forward.

The line of vehicles stretches as far as you can see, and before the morning is through, she and two volunteers will have distributed more than 225 food packages to seniors who meet the eligibility requirements of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).  The program is administered by the Aroostook County Agency on Aging, but Catholic Charities handles distribution.  In addition to Presque Isle, they will also make stops in Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Fort Kent, Houlton, Mars Hill, and Van Buren.

“We’re covering as many of the larger communities as we can, and then the smaller ones are covered by the pantries. It’s worked out really, really well,” Dixie says.

When the program started about five years back, Dixie says they received 455 food packs, but when the USDA offered to increase the amount, Catholic Charities happily took on the added work. Dixie says the need in the County is great.

“We’re serving 1,755 people every month with the senior food packs. And who knows? There may be two people eating out of one box,” says Dixie. “The County is the largest county east of the Mississippi. It’s larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island put together. However, we only have 70,000 people in the whole county. It’s very rural, and it’s not easy for a lot of people, especially older people.”

Those receiving the food are grateful for the help.

“When you are a senior citizen on a fixed income, and you receive commodities like this, it’s helpful to me,” says Newman, a senior from Presque Isle. “Everything we receive is useful. Every month, we look forward to this because a lot of these are staples to our lives like macaroni, milk, and cereal, and we appreciate it.”

“This program is absolutely amazing. We’re so lucky to have this,” says Michele Holmes, a caregiver for a senior with disabilities. “She is thrilled every time to receive it.”

Dixie says many older folks in Aroostook County worked in small businesses or on farms throughout their lives.  Now, they have little to fall back on.

“My parents fell into that category. They were mom and pop store people all their lives, worked seven days a week but had nothing for retirement. I think that people in the generation of my parents thought they would be able to work forever. They never really had the kind of awareness that we have now about retirement funds,” she says.

In addition, many no longer have children living nearby. Aroostook County has seen many young people move away to attend college or for careers.

“Generations ago, the farm was the grandparents and the parents and the children all living in one place.  When the grandparents got older, they were taken care of by the younger generation that was still working. It wasn’t like it is now,” Dixie says. “Now, there is so much awareness of what is out there, and people want to go and check it out.”

Dixie says many of the seniors have such pride and a strong work ethic, they hesitate to sign up to receive the free food, regardless of how much it would benefit them. Even with their limited resources, she says they want to give back.

“One lady brought us cookies today. Yesterday, a lady brought us brownies. I’ve had a lady knit me socks because she thought my feet were cold. She knitted me mittens and socks,” she says. “They want to give if they can.”

Dixie knows many of the seniors by name, and they know her.

“I come here once a month to see this wonderful lady,” says Michele. “She’s always so bubbly. She is full of life. She is always so friendly.”

Dixie has worked for Catholic Charities for more than 30 years, most of them spent helping to feed the people of Aroostook County.  In addition to handling the CSFP program, Catholic Charities provides food to 24 local food pantries across Aroostook County through its food banks in Caribou and Monticello.  The pantries pay a membership fee but get the food for free.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we have two licensed, climate-controlled warehouses here in Aroostook County. Having a license means we have food safety handling training. That means we have coolers and freezers in place, and warehouses, and handling equipment and trucks,” she says.

Having the proper facilities has meant being able to take in donations of just about any size. Dixie remembers, for instance, a truck driver calling her with ten pallets of chicken that a buyer didn’t want or, when preparing for the threat of flooding, being able to take in 40 pallets of water donated by Poland Spring.

“You can’t do that if you don’t have the infrastructure in place,” she says. “We never have to say, ‘No thanks. We can’t handle it.’ It’s taken us a while to get there, but we have.”

And having gotten there has meant the ability to help more people.

“We fed roughly 21,260 people last year through our networks. That includes our pantries, as well as people who are getting the food boxes. We put out 1,593,876 pounds of food last year in Aroostook County. That is nearly 40 tractor trailers,” Dixie says.

Catholic Charities buys much of the food it gives out from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn because prices are a fraction of what they would be at a grocery store. It also receives donations from businesses and individuals and is able to provide fresh vegetables through its Farm for ME program. Catholic Charities grows rutabagas and beets on donated farmland, has glean teams, which pick up what’s left when farmers are finished harvesting their crops, and partners with farmers willing to grow crops for them.

“One of our neighbors who is next to our farm in Caribou, he grows cabbage. That’s what he does. He grows beautiful cabbage, so this year, I said, ‘If I buy you some seed, will you grow me some cabbage?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely,’” Dixie says.

Dixie also formed a partnership with members of the Amish community.

“They grew onions for us, carrots, and some cabbage,” she says. “They produced a wonderful, wonderful crop of onions for us, and gave it to us.  So, I was like, ‘This is the best!’ And they agreed they would do it again.”

Dixie has made connections throughout the state and beyond.  WAGM-TV and Aroostook Savings & Loan are longtime supporters, as is Teamsters Local 340, which does a food drive each year.

“They start in Kittery and come all the way up,” she says.

She also partners with the Aroostook County Jail. With only two full-time and one part-time worker, the program relies heavily on volunteers.

“We have inmates come to work for us. They work every day. They unload trucks. They load trucks. They bale clothing for the recycling effort that we’re doing. They work on the farm. They help pass out our senior food packs,” she says.

Despite the many contributions and connections, Dixie says raising money to ensure people don’t go hungry is an ongoing challenge.  She says it’s especially difficult to cover operational costs, such as fuel for vehicles, truck repairs, and salaries, since most donations that come in are specifically designated for food.

“It’s very expensive to give away free food and to be a licensed, climate-controlled warehouse. We have to have a lot of things in place because we have a license and we’re audited,” Dixie says. “We don’t ever get enough money from a contract or an agreement to really handle something, so you’re always a little behind.”

It is why getting support from the Catholic Appeal is so valuable.

“We need to survive. We need to keep going because this is so important,” Dixie says.  “I will assure you that 100% of what we’re doing is for one mission – feeding the County.”

To support that mission, Catholic Charities operates thrift stores in Presque Isle, Caribou, and Monticello, although Dixie says other secondhand stores that have opened in the area, as well as online sites, have cut into profits.

Catholic Charities also raises money by bundling clothes and shoes they are unable to sell in their thrift stores for shipment overseas.

“Just as fast as I can bale clothing, I can ship it. The market is good right now,” says Dixie. “Many countries around the world don’t manufacture clothing. They buy it from industrialized nations.”

Catholic Charities also recycles scrap metal and other materials.

And Dixie writes many grants, for instance for equipment like trucks and forklifts.

Dixie is always looking for new opportunities, both large and small, and is always willing to step forward or speak up if it will help the cause.  She has collected food in Presque Isle’s Holiday Light Parade and the Potato Blossom Festival Grand Parade. She has sung karaoke.  She has started a stock car race. She has had her likeness used in a fundraising corn maze. She even has her own radio show on Classic Country 94.7 FM, which gives her a chance to talk about many topics, including, of course, the food bank.

Although she never intended it that way, she has become the face of efforts to feed the people of Aroostook County.

“I would rather not be the face of feeding The County, but I am the face, and I think it’s because I’ve allowed myself to get out there,” she says.  “God gave me a wonderful gift. God gave me a wonderful voice, and I will speak for those who can’t for the rest of my days.”

It’s a commitment she attributes both to her upbringing and to struggles she has experienced in her own life.

She says growing up in Bridgewater, her father always emphasized to her and her siblings the importance of sharing.

“My father used to say to us, ‘If you go outside with a cookie, you share it with whomever is out there,’” she says. “He thought it was the rudest thing if someone ate in front of someone and didn’t share what they have.”

He also taught her how to drive a truck and how to be a problem solver, both invaluable in her current position.

“I would ask my father about trucks or cars or mechanical stuff, and he would basically say, go figure it out. So, I had to figure it out,” she says.

Married at a young age, Dixie says she discovered how quickly circumstances can take a negative turn.

“When I was married, we were both working but just couldn’t seem to quite get ahead,” she says. “We were living in an old house. It was cold. It was drafty. It wasn’t energy efficient in any way. The roof leaked.”

She says they started out as farmers, but lost the farm, so her husband went into trucking. Unfortunately, not long after that, the truck was damaged in an accident. Unable to get the necessary parts to fix it because the manufacturer was on strike, their bills quickly mounted.  Although she was working several part-time jobs while raising three children, the money coming in wasn’t nearly enough to make the truck payments, pay to insure it, and take care of household expenses, never mind buy groceries.

“By the time he got back on the road, we were so far behind, I didn’t think we would every see the daylight,” she says. “I remember burning the shingles off the back of the woodshed because we didn’t have any wood.”

She recalls her electricity being shut off and being taken to court for not paying an insurance bill. She credits a sympathetic judge for giving her a break and giving her advice that turned her life around.

“He said, ‘Work smarter, not harder.’ And I thought, ‘What does he mean by that?’ And I said, ‘I think he means I should get an education.’ And I did.”

Originally planning to go into law enforcement, she received an associate’s degree in criminal justice, then a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, both from the University of Maine in Presque Isle (UMPI).  She later would get a master’s degree in business from Husson College in Bangor.

It was while at UMPI that she got her first job with Catholic Charities, then known as the Diocesan Bureau of Human Relations Services. She worked part-time, checking in on juvenile offenders to make sure they were meeting the conditions of their release.

Her experience led her to shift her career focus to probation work, since she already had experience in the field.  When an opening came up in Caribou, she applied, but says, even though she knew the job in and out, she froze while taking the oral exam. Devastated at the time, she now sees God’s hand in it.

“I think that was divine intervention. That was not where I was supposed to be,” she says.

She stayed with Catholic Charities, becoming youth services director and then program director of the Christopher Home in Caribou, which served juvenile offenders and children in protective services.

In 1994, she was offered a job running Catholic Charities’ Building Materials Bank and the food bank, and while the former has since closed, the latter has been at the center of her life ever since.

“I love it. I love getting in the truck and driving it.  I love picking up the guys at the county jail in the morning. I love seeing what’s on the next truck,” she says. “I love to work. I’ve always loved to work.”

The only part that is difficult, she says, is knowing why the work is so needed.

“Hearing a man say, ‘Can you help get me something to get me through the next month?’ I don’t know him, but I’ve been him. Maybe that’s it,” she says.

Dixie says she believes she is doing what God has called her do and says her positive attitude comes from her trust in Him.

“I believe that somehow, someway, something will come up, and we’ll get what we need,” she says. “I feel like I’m not in control of my life. I’m driven by a power higher than me. I just hang on for the ride and pray to God that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

It’s a ride she’s hoping will continue for many more years to come.

“I have no desire to even consider retiring,” she says. “I really, really, really like what I do.”

And that’s welcome news to the people of Aroostook County.

“She’s got her hands just in so many different pieces of all the communities up and down Aroostook County, helping people in so many ways,” says Matt Irwin, a volunteer. “It’s that kind of positive energy that makes people feel good about helping out.”

“She does so much and works so hard for this mission. Dixie is awesome,” says Jill Hotham, manager of the Presque Isle thrift store.

“She is one in a million,” says Michele. “God gave us a gift, and that would be Dixie Shaw.”