By Rob Riley

The Spaces In BetweenSo much has changed over the past few weeks. We know people’s lives have been turned upside down and our friends and neighbors are doing what they can to put food on the table, stay connected with others and maintain a sense of hope for the future.
In these tumultuous times, our team is doing what we do best: asking questions, listening deeply, adapting our strategies, and continuing to work toward a vibrant future. Here are a few examples of how we’ve adapted our programs to serve immediate needs:
  • In the Maine West region (Rumford, Bethel, So. Paris, Maine), school closures have deepened the digital divide. One school district estimates that 15% of families do not have internet at home and another estimates 279 families do not. With remote classes underway, the Maine West team, convened by the Center, quickly allocated funds to secure 100 tablets equipped with cellular hotspots for families needing connectivity for virtual learning.
  • For wood products companies, uncertainty and questions abound. Our Northern Forest Board Forum members are navigating the impact of closed suppliers, stalled sales, human resource issues, and complicated and inconsistent state and federal information. With our help and that of the Forum’s consultant coaches, members are sharing insights as they trouble shoot health protocols, business sustainability, employee benefits and company morale.
  • For hospitality and tourism businesses whose winter seasons ended abruptly, we’re adjusting programs to meet immediate needs. For our Bike Borderlands, Community Destination Academy (Greenville, Rangeley and Bethel, Maine), and Get NEKed (Northeast Kingdom, Vermont) collaboratives, we’re engaging businesses to hear where existing resources can be most helpful. We’ve paused direct marketing and are shifting from in-person to virtual coaching and expanding webinar-based programming to serve a broader set of businesses.
Across our programmatic and geographic areas, we’re gleaning information from conversations with civic leaders and businesses and urging congressional delegation and federal agency staff to implement changes to programs that will better address small business needs in this very challenging time.
Our substantive and long-term projects — to expand markets for wood, increase broadband accessibility, invest in community assets and expand destination development — continue, sensitive to the new reality. While we continue to help position the Northern Forest region for success, we understand that now is not the time to conduct business as usual.
Finally, we’re only as strong as our team, network and broader community. Through my many calls with partners across our region, I’m finding that it’s the “spaces in between” – the personal check-ins that bookend conversations, the sight of dogs and children popping up in the background of our virtual meetings, the camaraderie of families staying  home together – that are linking us personally and reminding me how important we all are to each other.
Now is the time to get outside with family and partners, reflect on the beauty of the Northern Forest, check on your neighbors (with appropriate distancing, of course), and look to fill the “spaces in between” with the kind of goodness that helps pull our communities together and forward.