2012-07-06 / People


Cape Elizabeth resident brings hospitality to new level
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Mary Irace Mary Irace Mary Irace heard thousands of stories in her eight years working as a volunteer and as a paid staff member at Gary’s House in Portland. The hospitality house on State Street offers a place to stay for family members visiting sick loved ones at a Portland-area hospital. Irace, a Cape Elizabeth resident who lives off Spurwink Avenue, had checked in about 4,000 people there in the time she worked for the organization.

But one story especially stuck with her.

Two-year-old Aiden stayed with his grandparents at Gary’s House one Maine winter while his father was hospitalized and in a coma at Maine Medical Center. Irace noticed that Aiden and his grandparents would leave for several hours at a time during the day in the cold weather, so she asked where they were spending their time.

Aiden’s grandparents told her they were visiting the trains at Rigby Yard in South Portland, because it was, as Irace said, “something that made Aiden smile with the difficult situation.” Irace asked if the couple had considered taking their grandson for a ride at the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which is closer, but Aiden’s grandparents said they didn’t have the money to visit.

So Irace went down to the Narrow Gauge Railroad herself, where she said a generous manager “whipped out his Mastercard” and bought a year’s membership, valued at $100, for Aiden’s family and any other families staying at Gary’s House who were interested in a visit.

“That made them so happy. And it made (Aiden) so happy too. His eyes just lit right up,” Irace said.

Irace lost her job at Gary’s House in February 2011 when her position was eliminated. But she was inspired by the small acts of kindness she saw from others, so she decided to help families of sick patients on her own.

So Irace created Simple Gifts, a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers that accepts small monetary donations and sends them on to family members of hospital patients in need of a helping hand. The gifts with a $25 to $50 value can come in the form of gas cards, hospital cafeteria vouchers, or other small gestures.

According to the Simple Gifts website, Irace found that hospitality houses could meet families’ needs for a place to stay, but families “had many other unmet needs that arose during this difficult time for which there were no readily available resources,” such as gas, food, or stuffed animals for children. The goal of Simple Gifts will be to address those smaller needs.

To get Simple Gifts off the ground, Irace enlisted the help of her husband of 35 years, Anthony, who works as a lawyer in Portland in the Law Offices of Joe Bornstein. Anthony helped his wife file the paperwork to certify the company as a nonprofit public charity. Her friends and neighbors helped her with other start-up needs. Some are on the board of the organization and others helped create the website, SimpleGiftsMaine.org.

Irace plans to work with social workers and care providers in the Portland, Lewiston and Bangor areas to gather referrals for potential recipients of the Simple Gifts program. As a child, Irace lived in Leeds, and her “hardscrabble” Maine upbringing helps her empathize with families and patients who have traveled long distances to receive medical care, she said.

“I know the Maine people. I know what it’s like and I know it can be very tough ... Those are my roots. Folks always helped each other out,” she said.

But while communities can be a source of support to help families through a medical emergency, those who travel long distances come from small Maine towns can sometimes feel cut off from their support networks.

When that happens, Irace said, “One good thing that happens can give them traction.” She added that a positive gesture, even something small, has the ability to “change people’s belief that things will get better.”

Irace works as a florist for wedding events, and in March she began working full time again for the Salvation Army in Portland as an associate program director. Through her work experience, Irace has met many small business owners in the Portland area, and she hopes they will add another element to Simple Gifts on top of personal contributions.

Dani Nisbet, owner of Belissimo Salon in South Portland, contributed two salon treatments to Simple Gifts, and Irace hopes a few other business owners follow suit. But this isn’t the first time Nisbet has helped someone through a loved one’s medical emergency.

In summer 2010, Irace was working with a mother at Gary’s House whose daughter suffered a life-threatening complication from what was supposed to be a relatively simple operation. The mother had stayed at Gary’s House for three months and, on one particularly bad day, Irace decided to take her to Belissimo. Nisbet refused to let Irace pay, so Irace took the mother shopping for a new outfit as well.

When the mother returned to the hospital, Irace said, “I had social workers call me up from Maine Med who said, ‘We didn’t even recognize her.’ They were so thrilled. When she came in, she just lit up that whole Critical Care Unit.”

The woman’s daughter died a few weeks later. But Irace said the experience provided the mother with a small positive experience, “just an hour or two,” to help her through an incredibly difficult time. With Simple Gifts, she hopes to offer the same opportunity to other families.

Staff Writer Jack Flagler can be reached 282-4337 ext. 219.

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