December 12, 2013
What happens when you grow up in the Bethel area, move away in pursuit of education or adventure, then find yourself living back in your hometown?
Four young people who left, then returned, have found that with a little creativity and a lot of flexibility, home can be a pretty special place. They recently shared their experiences.
“You have to go the extra mile to make it work.”
When Craig Angevine graduated from high school and left Bethel for college, he never expected to come back for more than an occasional visit.
“I think when people leave [their home town] it’s often with a sense of negativity,” he says. There’s a tendency to reject the familiar surroundings they’ve grown up in, and “they want to go out and do something important with their lives.”
Now, a decade later, Angevine has been back in town for four years, supporting himself, depending on the season, through carpentry and waiting tables, often working two or three jobs at a time. For the past two years, he has also been focused on his creative dream of launching a photography business.
The 2008 recession, the loss of his job in Seattle, and a mountain of student loan debt conspired to bring Angevine back east, but it’s a new perspective on his hometown that has made him want to stay.
“Once I started working, and meeting people, I remembered what it’s like being here,” he says. “The woods, skiing, swimming—these are all things I value immensely.”
Does he envision a long-term future for himself in the Bethel area? “Absolutely,” Angevine says. “This is my home base. That doesn’t mean I can never leave. It can be my home base, and I can orbit around it. Living here doesn’t equal being trapped here. If you believe you are trapped, or in a rut, then you are.”
He says most young people start out with a vision—often handed down from members of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations—of a lifelong career, and the stability and security that it brings. But he believes that, for the most part, that kind of security no longer exists.
His friends who live in urban areas face the same kinds of issues he does, he says: trying to balance life and work, to earn enough to pay the bills and a little more. “Even for people who go to work for big corporations, having one career for life is kind of a thing of the past.”
He doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. “The most special thing that can happen to people when they’re in their twenties is to learn to let go of that idea of security, to dive in and take a chance.”
Angevine says he wants to encourage other young people “not to feel like it’s impossible to live here. I hope to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit. The opportunities are here, but you have to go the extra mile to make it work.”
“I’m in a pretty good situation.”
Unlike Angevine, Gould Academy pottery teacher Ashley Oliver says she “always planned on coming back to Bethel after college.”
Oliver grew up in Bethel, graduated from Gould, and majored in pottery at Alfred University. After returning to town in 2007, she says, “I did odd jobs for a couple of years,” working at the Bethel Inn and setting up a studio at her parents’ home to make her own pottery.
“I always wanted to work at Gould,” Oliver says, and in 2010 she was given the opportunity to fill a one-year opening there, teaching pottery—exactly what she had envisioned when she chose her college and major. The position became permanent, and she is now in her fourth year as part of the art department staff.
“Being a young person in Bethel can be challenging,” she acknowledges, “because so many people here are very family oriented. But I have a good group of friends at Gould, as well as a group of people I grew up with here, so I’m not struggling to find things to do.”
“I have no plans for leaving. I’m in a pretty good situation,” she adds.
“I’m always ten percent on vacation.”
Gabe Perkins is a fulltime student at the University of Maine at Farmington. Now 35, he grew up in Bethel and attended local schools through eighth grade, when his family moved to the Readfield area. After graduating from Maranacook High School, he attended Northeastern University for a few semesters.
Eventually, saddled with student loan debt but without a degree, Perkins signed up for a two-year stint with Americorps, working in development and public relations for Habitat for Humanity in Phoenix, Ariz.
He returned to Bethel in 2002, after he and his sister inherited their grandparents’ house on Mason Street. Perkins and his wife Jessie, who met in 2005 while both were working at the Good Food Store, eventually bought out his sister’s interest in the house.
Although restoring their home provides more than enough projects to keep them busy, community involvement is a high priority for the Perkinses. Jessie wrote a grant to fund the Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative; she now works at the Chamber of Commerce and volunteers on many community projects. Gabe has served on the Planning Board, the Airport Authority, and the Comprehensive Planning Committee, and chairs the Projects Committee of Mahoosuc Pathways, working to build and advocate for trails in the Bethel region. Both are also very active in the local foods movement.
“Through Americorps, I made a decision to be involved, to serve,” Perkins says. “I made a commitment to be involved in my community.”
His return to school in 2011 was driven by his desire to participate fully. “I decided that if I was going to continue to do this kind of work here, I needed to learn how.” Perkins will graduate in May with a degree in Environmental Policy and Planning, a major he describes as “helping to understand how a community works and how to do comprehensive planning, with a strong component of GIS (geographical information systems).”
Perkins encourages other young people to get involved. “If people take ownership, it becomes respect, for the place and for the people.” It seems that his infectious enthusiasm may be paying off. “For a long time, Jessie and I would go to visioning meetings and say to each other, ‘We’re the youngest people in the room—again.’ But now that’s starting to change.”
Of the perception that living in a small town restricts opportunities, Perkins says, “We decided that place, the place where we live now, is important to us. We have friends who live in cities and they say they can’t wait to retire and live in a place like this. I say, why wait? Just because of where I live, I feel like I’m always ten percent on vacation, all the time.”
“I fit into the story of Bethel.”
If Anna Sysko seems completely at home behind the counter and in the kitchen of DiCocoa’s Market & Bakery, it’s because she has been there, off and on, for nearly 19 years. “I started working for Cathi [diCocco] in high school, when I was 14,” she says
Sysko graduated from Gould Academy in 1999, attended college in Orono for a year and has spent time in Colorado and Michigan. She returned to Newry, where her father, Jim, owns 600 acres of land, in 2006.
“I was living in Michigan, working in a natural foods store,” she says. “I met someone who was into growing food, and then I had a dream of returning home to farm.”
With the help of her father and sister, she built a 32×48-foot passive solar glass greenhouse, in which she raises chickens and grows greens, herbs, tomatoes, and peppers. “We’ve been growing every day, year-round, for the past two years,” she says.
Sysko, who works three and a half days a week at DiCocoa’s and also homeschools her six-year-old daughter, markets her produce locally and has plans to expand her business. “That greenhouse has the capacity to produce hundreds and hundreds of pounds of greens every year, and the demand for local foods is growing all the time.”
“I came back here mostly because of the land, and because of family. For me, it was also the family of the town—I didn’t have to invent myself; I’d already been invented here as a child. Now that I’m here, I can’t imagine moving away. I fit into the story of Bethel.”
That story, she says, is “a real careful, slow, progressive walk forward. People who live here are piecing together diverse ways of making a living and being a part of the community.”