Creating Common Ground

If you’re curious to know what four-and-a-half acres can do for a community, go to Milbridge, Maine.

In the center of town at the water’s edge, there’s a place called the Milbridge Commons Wellness Park where, on a recent warm October day, a father and his young daughters flew a kite; three
students lay in the grass pouring over textbooks; people stretched their legs; children played gleefully on a newly installed playset while their grandmother looked on; a young person tended rows of beautiful, elaborate gardens, and another stopped by with a canvas bag to pick fresh, free vegetables.

The story of Milbridge Commons starts with the group Women for Healthy Rural Living (WHRL). On a mission to advance and promote the “health and wellbeing of the woman, her family, and her community,” in 2013, this local nonprofit started an Incredible Edible program for members of the community to harvest fresh, free vegetables from a collection of gardens around town. The program was a success; the gardens were regularly picked clean.

“We were looking to expand our gardens,” says WHRL’s Executive Director Chris Kuhni. “The community was also asking for a safe place to walk—they wanted a playground. We needed a significant piece of land to make that happen. We certainly didn’t have the resources to purchase the land or turn it into something that the community could access. So we approached Maine Coast Heritage Trust and told them about our idea.”

MCHT’s staff and board thought it was a great one. “This is the power of partnership,” says MCHT project manager Patrick Watson. “MCHT brings our particular set of skills, knowledge, and resources to the table, and WHRL brings theirs. Together we’re able to accomplish something that wouldn’t have been possible on our own.”

MCHT closed on the purchase of the 4.6-acre parcel in 2017. Over the next several years, MCHT land steward Deirdre Whitehead collaborated with WHRL to turn the land into a multi-purpose greenspace. Drainage systems were installed; wide, gently sloping trails were built; and with the help of volunteers, WHRL’s lead gardener Janis Lesbines designed and planted a beautiful, mandala-like garden that overflows with food free for the picking in the growing season.

Visitors enjoy the play unit. Photo courtesy of Women for Healthy Rural Living.

Susan Jordan Bennett, Associate Director of WHRL, says Milbridge Commons has changed the community, particularly for local kids and students. “They touch the lambs ear, smell the dill, count the butterflies. The whole place is a playground for them.” And this fall, WHRL added a play unit.

April Norton, a Milbridge resident who works as Senior Director of Human Resources for Wyman’s, frequently visits the Commons with her son, who likes to play in the grass or on the play unit while she walks the trails. “I can’t say enough about it,” she says. “It’s such a safe, inclusive space. People go there to enjoy other peoples’ company, their own company. WHRL offers classes, enrichment programs. People just really want to be there. It’s really proving to be much more than anticipated.”