2017-01-20 / Front Page

‘Tis the season for giving

Liz Darling named Great Person
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff writer

Liz Darling Liz Darling SOUTH PORTLAND — For years she’s worked tirelessly to assure all South Portland children find something under the holiday tree, now Sentry readers have given Liz Darling something in return, naming her the Great Person of 2016 in the newspaper’s annual reader poll.

“It’s very humbling,” Darling said during an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in the office of family run Maine Roofing, on Bishop Avenue.

“I don’t think of myself as a ‘great person,’ so, it seems almost a little embarrassing to me,” she said. “I mean, I don’t do the things I do for notoriety or awards or anything like that. I do it because I want to do it, and I enjoy doing it. But it’s a great honor and I thank all those who voted.”

For the past five years, Darling has run a holiday toy drive, working in conjunction with local teachers, who help identify children in need, and the South Portland Police Department, which delivers the presents purchased by Darling and the army of volunteers she has mustered over time.

This past season, new winter coats and boots, as well as toys galore, were given to 206 South Portland children, who otherwise would have gone without.

“She doesn’t want anyone to go without,” said Darling’s daughter, Samantha. “When she started the toy drive she thought she would just be providing toys to a few children in South Portland. She was heartbroken to find out that so many right here in our own community needed help, and not just with toys but warm winter clothing. The list has grown substantially over the past five years and she works hard to make sure everyone has a wonderful Christmas.”

Although it was her daughter who gave her the initial shout out this year, Darling has been nominated by others for the Great Person award for at least the past three years, including once in conjunction with her husband Bill.

In addition to founding and organizing the South Portland Christmas Toy Drive, Darling also works as a wish granter for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, helping to grant wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. Additionally, she serves on the South Portland Unite drug awareness task force and works with TRIAD, which provides elder services in Portland and South Portland. And, as a new project, Darling is working with South Portland police officer Linda Barker, a member of the department’s community response unit, to create an adopt-a-grandparent program in South Portland. That service, she says, should be up and running soon.

“I’m just one person of many who’ve put these things together,” she said, deflecting credit.

Darling, 53, grew up the middle of five kids. As the daughter of a decorated Marine, she traveled a lot, spending most of her youth in California. But when her father retired and took a job at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the family settled in South Portland, where Darling spent her senior year of high school.

However, by the time Darling was taking classes at University of Southern Maine, her parents decided New England winters weren’t for them and decamped back to the Golden State. Meanwhile, she was tending bar at the Old Port Tavern when she met her husband, whose family has deep roots in South Portland.

After graduating college with a communications degree, Darling worked at Portland City Hall as an economic development specialist and marketing director. However, about a decade ago she left to join her husband at Maine Roofing to help out after her father-in-law, who founded the company in 1974, died.

“My husband grew up in the business, working here his whole life, in addition to lobstering, and then he stepped in full-time when his father died,” Darling recalled.

Bill and Liz had two children. Samantha is a pharmacist, while their son became an engineer and now works in the family business, handling all commercial estimating. Darling said she and Bill hope to eventually pass the business on to the next generation.

“I hope our son will stay on, he’s our retirement plan,” he said, with a laugh.

Today, Maine Roofing employs 21 and Darling said it is “extremely difficult” to find willing help. Although the roofing jobs pay well, it’s hard work in the elements, summer and winter, and few people want the work.

“My heart breaks for them sometimes, as I’m in here in my nice, air-conditioned office and they’re out there in 90 degrees and high humidity,” Darling said.

But it was for another reason five years ago that Darling’s heart broke. At that time, with the recession in full swing, Darling learned the families of two Maine Roofing employees were having a tough time, and would be having a scant Christmas.

“I called everybody I could think of to get them help, from Toys for Tots, to Catholic Charities, and I couldn’t get them anything,” she said. “I was sick about it. These were people who came to work for us every day, they worked really hard, but due to other circumstances they were just really struggling, and I was, like, I can’t believe there’s nothing that can be done for their children.”

So, Darling decided if she could not find help, she’d create it, and partnered with Evelyn’s Tavern on Sawyer Street, which already had an informal toy drive going, in which it would drop off donations for distribution to schools by local police officers.

That soon became an organized drive designed to aid all South Portland children in need, not just those of her employees, with mountains of donated toys, and items purchased with cash gifts, sorted in the Maine Roofing warehouse.

Although the project started small, it has grown every year as more and more teachers caught on to the efforts, which Darling says was “legitimized” by participation from the police department.

“When we started I thought for sure the need would be all in Redbank and the western part of the city, but it’s really spread out all over,” she said.

Helping out, Darling said, is just the way she was raised.

“I grew up with it my whole life,” she said. “My parents were always very involved, always doing something for the community, and we kids always tagged along. When my father retired, he spent more than 40 hours per week working with those less fortunate. He spent every single day of this retirement years doing something for somebody else, so I think I just grew up that way. I believe in the philosophy and try to teach the same thing to my kids.

“If everybody in the world spent just 5 or 10 minutes a day doing something nice for somebody else, just think of the world we could have,” Darling said. “It could be a really great place.”

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