2014-06-27 / Front Page

Local ladies recognized as community service MVPs

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Dot Gonyea Dot Gonyea SOUTH PORTLAND/SCARBOROUGH — Two local women have been singled out by the New England Patriots as Maine’s “most valuable players” in volunteerism for their lives of dedicated public service.

Dot Gonyea of South Portland and Sara Brown of Scarborough were among 26 volunteers given a combined $200,000 in grant awards during a June 9 ceremony at Gillette Stadium, held as part of the annual Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards, sponsored by the Kraft family and New England Patriots Charitable Foundation.

Camp Sunshine in Casco was given a $5,000 grant on behalf of Gonyea, who has volunteered at the outdoor recreation site for sick children almost since its inception, 30 years ago. Brown, meanwhile, was awarded $10,000 for her Play Among the Stars Theater Group, which she founded 14 years ago to give an opportunity in the arts to mentally challenged individuals. Although the theater group is based in Salem, New Hampshire, Brown has continued to run it since moving to Scarborough seven years ago.


Congratulating South Portland’s Dot Gonyea, center, on her lifetime of volunteerism with a $5,000 Myra Kraft Community MVP Award to Camp Sunshine in Casco are, from left, Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, Patriots and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, and Patriots alumni and three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Andruzzi. (Courtesy photo) Congratulating South Portland’s Dot Gonyea, center, on her lifetime of volunteerism with a $5,000 Myra Kraft Community MVP Award to Camp Sunshine in Casco are, from left, Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, Patriots and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, and Patriots alumni and three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Andruzzi. (Courtesy photo) “Every year, we ask New England nonprofit organizations to nominate one volunteer who they consider their MVPs,” said Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft. “This year, we received a record number of nominations from over 400 nonprofits. Their stories are heartwarming and inspirational and narrowing the field to 26 winners gets more difficult every year.

Both Gonyea and Brown say they were stunned by the nominations, made in Gonya’s case by a camp staffer, and for Brown by the father of one of her theater members. That surprise recognition given for work done without expectation of reward is something Kraft says his philanthropist wife, long considered the matriarch of the Patriots’ Charitable Foundation until her death in 2011, would have appreciated.

“As a lifelong volunteer herself, this was always Myra’s favorite event,” Kraft said. “I am so glad that her legacy continues to live through the great work of all the Myra Kraft Community MVPs.”

“I am humbled and overwhelmed,” Gonyea said. “The late Mrs. Kraft had an unyielding passion for helping those less fortunate. To be associated in any way with the legacy of this amazing woman is an honor and a privilege that I will always feel at the core of my heart.”

And that’s not all Gonyea, a self-professed Pats fan, felt during the awards ceremony.

“I grabbed on to Tom Brady and gave him a great, big hug,” she said, with a laugh. “Then I looked up into those big, dreamy eyes, and that beautiful smile, and said, ‘I’m never going to let you go!’”

Gonyea was an empty nester when she read about Camp Sunshine in a newspaper article, shortly after it was created, and before it moved to its current location in Casco.

“I said to my husband, ‘You know, I think that’s something I might like to do,’” she recalled.

That spur-of-the-moment inspiration led to 27 years (so far), and thousands of hours of volunteering at the camp, including 18 years when Gonyea was known as the face of the kitchen. In addition to feeding and mentoring young campers, Gonyea also has raised more than $600,000 over the years to support Camp Sunshine’s mission, from founding the camp store and through her True Fans for Elvis Club.

According to camp officials, funds raised by Gonyea have helped more than 300 sick children and their families enjoy an invaluable respite during their retreats to Camp Sunshine.

“I volunteer because I feel so blessed every day that none of my children, their spouses or my grand- and great-grandchildren have ever had to do battle with lifethreatening illnesses,” Gonyea said. “It is the gratitude of a healthy family that inspires me every day to give of myself and to try and add an extra ray of sunshine into the lives of those battling life-threatening illnesses. For me, the giving of myself is what makes my heart grow fonder.”

In that way, Gonyea exemplifies the spirit of the Myra Kraft award, which seeks to recognize leadership, dedication and a commitment among individuals to improving their communities through volunteerism.

The same is true of Sara Brown of Scarborough, who founded Play Among the Stars, which provides a social setting for developmentally, emotionally and physically challenged individuals living in southern New Hampshire, through the production of two musical theater performances each year. Brown borrowed $1,000 for liability insurance to form the group 14 years ago, largely to provide a creative outlet for her son Jason, who is mentally handicapped and has cerebral palsy.

From seven initial members performing in a church basement, Brown’s theater group has grown to nearly 60 clients that range in age from 10 to 65, who engender enough community support that their semi-annual shows (28 and counting) have long since moved to the local high school.

“While they’re on stage, they can be anybody they want to be,” Brown said. “For the time of that show, at least, they are not a special-needs person, they are an actor or actress being whomever they’ve chosen to portray, be it Cinderella, Abraham Lincoln, or a super hero — anything or anyone, with no limitations.”

Although the group stages just two shows a year, Brown logs at least five hours per day, from fundraising to writing and choreographing the shows and preparing the music.

“The funny thing is, I had absolutely no background in theater when I started this,” she said. “But it’s an act of love. It’s my passion.

“To be nominated for this award – it was an incredible honor, first of all, just to be thought worthy,” Brown said. “Mr. Kraft could not have been more gracious. He was so wonderful and made all of (the award winners) feel just so special. But for me, to know that the theater group was being recognized, that was the real reward.”

Brown continues to commute 80 miles each way between her home and the theater, saying that she’s “just not ready to give it up,” even after a move to Maine for her husband’s job. However, she would like to share her experience with anyone interested in starting a similar theater group in southern Maine for the developmentally disabled.

“I would like to inspire someone in Maine to do something like this, because I see so many special needs folks around and know it would add to their lives,” said Brown, offering her phone number (510-1789) and website (www.playamongthestars.com) as contact information.

That’s a goal Gonyea can support, based on the “wonderful, wonderful” services provided at Camp Sunshine.

“The world is constantly changing,” she said. “One thing we can all do is work to make sure that human compassion is embedded into everyone’s life regardless of their challenges.”

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