Thornton Academy News

  • Alumni
What They Do Best: Ryan Sommer ’94 & Erika Dube ’97 Bring the Community Together

During the long winter months of 2020, when cold and quarantine made the reality of food insecurity much more challenging for many Mainers, Saco City Council reached out to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department in an effort to provide much needed resources. Saco’s Parks and Recreation Department (SPR) includes parks and trees, beaches, and all recreation programs, as well as senior programs. It’s a lot to manage without the added challenge of navigating a pandemic, but when they received the city council's call, SPR’s Director, Ryan Sommer ’94, and Deputy Director, Erika Dube ’97, didn't hesitate to shift their focus to supporting Saco’s senior citizens.

The result: a plan that offered a hot meal to seniors each Friday for 13 weeks, while supporting local restaurants who were otherwise closed due to the pandemic. Sommer and Dube crafted a collaborative process that included partnering with fellow community organizations and a network of volunteers composed of SPR and city staff, local representatives, and members of the Saco Police Department.

Sommer credits the involvement of his staff for much of the program’s success. “From April to June, we served over 3,000 meals, starting in 30-degree snowy weather and ending in 80 degrees and sun.” SPR staff were involved at every level, from working with restaurants to ensure that there was enough food; to packaging, delivering, and distributing meals. The program also relied on many generous donations from local businesses and individuals, totaling almost $15,000! Their strategy was originally slated for six weeks, but more than doubled in length as a direct result of the generosity of the Saco community.

While the program was ultimately successful, it was not without complications resulting from COVID-related limits to group gatherings. According to Dube, adopting the necessary COVID-19 prevention practices in order to keep patrons and staff safe was the top priority. “Recreation professionals are known for our ability to bring people together to create community, which currently poses a risk. Now, we must identify creative ways to meet the needs of our community... [Another] challenge is planning programs during a time of much uncertainty and constant change. We no longer have the luxury of planning one or two seasons ahead. We're tasked with developing a variety of scenarios dependent on future circumstances, and then implementing the appropriate option in a very short turnaround.”

Despite the added layers of complexity that marked the last several months, both Sommer and Dube found the experience profoundly rewarding, and an added reason to take pride in SPR’s programs. “We have a team dedicated to our community, and in return, the support of our community,” remarked Dube. “The residents of Saco know we are offering programs with their interests in mind.” Similarly, Sommer appreciated providing some normalcy to the community, and opportunities to connect, even during a quarantine.

“We enjoy bringing people together... The inability to provide the space, programs, and activities that our community has grown to expect was very challenging for us. [This program] gave us a sense of being able to do what we do best, which was bringing the community together again.”

As students at TA, both Sommer and Dube were very involved in athletics and student activities. Football, basketball, track, Jazz Choir, Peer Helpers, and Student Council took up much of Sommer’s time, and his TA memories include some of his “most enjoyable moments.” Dube’s time as a Trojan was also marked by much more than academics; she played field hockey, ran track, sang
in Jazz and District Choir, participated in Portland Youth Wind Ensemble and All-State Band; and took part in Drama, Interact, and Math Clubs, and Student Council. Such active student schedules undoubtedly prepared them for the busy life and fast pace of the world of recreational programming.

“I think TA played a pivotal part in my career path because it allowed me to see my true passion, which is providing an opportunity for the community to come together and actually be a community,” shared Sommer. “I had some great guidance from the teachers at TA, some of whom are still teaching there today... TA prepared me for my future.”

Dube’s experiences at TA, both as a student and an alumna, were also influential, and she continues to find ways to stay connected to TA through her work. "Saco Parks and Rec is one of the largest employers of young people in the community; many of our seasonal staff are current TA students, recent graduates, and alumni like Ryan and me. In addition, we have great partnerships with TA athletics and educators connecting to our programs. I would never have guessed during my time as a student that so many important connections later in life would be fostered
by TA—I’m very grateful to the school for creating that network.”