Houlton group has a plan to change ‘from away’ attitudes

4 weeks ago

HOULTON, Maine – When Cecilia Rhoda heard that a retired couple bought a beautiful property in her Houlton neighborhood two years ago and were already moving out because they did not feel welcomed by the town, she decided to change things. 

“That made me very, very sad,” said Rhoda, a leader of the Houlton Gateway Ambassadors, a volunteer group that supports community events and endeavors.  “But then I thought to myself OK, we can do something about that.”

Rhoda, with the help of community leaders, came up with a plan to welcome new residents. The ambassadors will take the lead on putting the plan into practice.

“I don’t know how many of you have been exposed to new people who have come into town – some have been here for as much as 10 years – and they are still being treated as aliens, as people from away,” Rhoda said to a group of about 25 ambassadors on Wednesday night during a meeting at the town office. “These people have not been necessarily made to feel welcome in this community.”

Rhoda’s welcome to Houlton idea is reminiscent of Welcome Wagon, started in Memphis in the late 1920s as a way to make people feel part of a community. Welcome Wagon hostesses would go door-to-door with a packet of goodies and over a cup of coffee, the hostess would let the new resident know about the community. Welcome Wagon stopped its in-person efforts in 1998 but continues online and mail outreach. 

The growing group of Gateway Ambassadors played an essential part of the Houlton eclipse weekend  in April when more than 20,000 people visited the small community. Ambassadors staffed the very busy downtown welcome center, they helped with traffic control and parking and mingled at star parks and on shuttle buses to greet and assist visitors from around the world. 

During Wednesday’s meeting Rhoda presented a draft of a new resident welcome letter, welcome packet and ideas on moving the initiative forward.

She asked the ambassadors if this was an effort they supported.

Several people attending shared additional stories about people they had run into who did not feel welcome in the community and how some didn’t even know where the downtown was located. One woman shared that she met a man from Poland at the downtown library and he said that even though he has lived in the community for 14 years he did not feel welcomed.

The first step of the welcome initiative is to find a way of identifying the town’s new residents. 

Rhoda suggested getting information from the town’s tax records. 

“Perhaps we could create a liaison with someone in the town office to provide us with that information,” she said. “Also, voter registration is another resource.”

Identifying new rental residents could be more difficult and it was suggested they contact landlords. 

Working from a list of new residents, they would send out a welcome letter and welcome packet. In the packet would be a new-resident survey to identify demographics and interests. 

“It would give us a thumbnail sketch and then we can focus on that resident,” Rhoda said, adding that ultimately she would like to have host ambassadors that share similar interests with the new resident contact them.  

As part of the welcome packet they will offer information on churches and commonly used contacts for plumbers, electricians, and even what to do with the trash.

“We just take these things for granted but people new to our community don’t necessarily know how our community works. So having a resource is important,” she said.  

It will take several three-to-five person teams to get the initiative off the ground including a venue team, a brochure design team, new-resident discovery team, a mailing team, a team to put together the welcome packet, and a team to finalize an ambassador brochure, Rhoda said. 

Houlton entrepreneur Fred Grant suggested that the welcome packet is also a great opportunity for businesses in the community to be involved and to connect with new people to the area. Perhaps they could include something that identifies someone as a newcomer and when they come to the business, staff can say, “Welcome to Houlton,” he said.