Cohill celebrates 25 years leading ISC

by Geoff Fox

Whenever there has been an issue in town where a person or family needs assistance, they’ve been able to turn to Interfaith Service Coalition for that assistance.

And whenever they came to the ISC offices, there’s been one person who has been there to help them through whatever assistance they’ve needed – Debbie Cohill.

Cohill recently celebrated her 25th year as director of the outreach organization.

Representatives of the Town of Hancock present a gift to Debbie Cohill honoring her for her 25 years as Executive Director of the Interfaith Service Coalition of Hancock. photo courtesy of Jerry Spessard

Cohill became the third director of ISC, following Ken Boheim and Jane McCaulay, in 1998 when the office was still in Town Hall.

As Cohill began her tenure as director at ISC, she had a vision of expanding ISC but wasn’t sure exactly how that would happen.

The expansion opportunity presented itself to Cohill and ISC in the building next door to her current office to do a big indoor yard sale.

“We had so many items that had been donated at times where people had fires or other problems that the stage area at Town Hall was full,” she said.

With ISC being overwhelmed, they had a yard sale and the building was sitting empty at the time and the Pittman family allowed ISC to use the building for the yard sale.

“People just kept saying they needed something more permanent because the Goodwill on Main Street had closed and there was nothing else,” Cohill said.

After the ISC board had discussed it, they acquired the building which now houses Loaves and Fishes, the building with Cohill’s office, and the side parking lot.

“We never looked back and it’s still doing great,” she said.

Loaves and Fishes and the current location aren’t the only additions ISC has had with Cohill as director.

One came after Cohill and her husband had a house fire in 2001 and found lodging in Hancock was a problem.

With her husband John still working in Washington and having to get up early in the morning and Cohill going to bed later, she found being in a hotel room was an inconvenience.

With the hotel being just one room, if Cohill stayed up late, she’d wake her husband. If he got up early, he’d wake her.

“And I kept thinking, ‘What do people do when they have a family? What would they do if they have children?’,” Cohill said.

As she was leaving church one day in 2005, Cohill said Linda McCarty approached her about possibly buying her house on High Street.

McCarty and Cohill had become friends due to having Basset Hounds.

Cohill agreed to the purchase and after talking to Rev. Allan Weatherholt about the concept of the Good Samaritan House shelter, the shelter became a reality.

“It’s not known to a lot of people what it actually does because it’s not like a regular shelter that homeless just show up and stay,” she said.

The house is from referrals from firefighters, police, rescue squad, schools or social services, and/or the Red Cross.

Anyone who stays at the property has suffered a disaster such as a fire, flooding, or even a tree falling on someone’s house, Cohill said.

Also under Cohill’s direction was the creation of Martha’s House in 2019.

Cohill said for a number of years she had heard there was nothing for kids to do in Hancock and she understands where people were coming from.

“It had long been our dream to open a youth center,” Cohill said.

Around 2017, Suzanne Edwards, who was a former board member at ISC, was talking to Cohill. She and her husband were tired of being landlords and wanted to spend more time in Mexico, so they wanted to give their building to a non-profit.

After a discussion with her husband, Edwards donated the building to ISC.

“They called the next morning and said, ‘It’s a go, let’s do it,’ and the rest is history,” Cohill said.

Grants were written immediately, and renovations were begun. Cohill said ISC put $300,000 into the building for renovations. Even though the “bones of the building were in great shape,” the main floor had to be gutted and retrofit to meet the needs of who would use it.

Cohill also noted ISC has been aggressive in seeking out grant funding, enabling the organization to offer “really wonderful quality programs.”

In her best estimate, Cohill said ISC has pulled in almost $4.5 million for programs ($3 million) and other partner groups such as Hancock Fire Company, Orleans Fire Company, and Hancock Rescue Squad ($1.5 million).

The Fire Company, she said, has provided programming and training at Adventures in Friendship Camps and for senior’s program in the fall, along with ISC providing referrals for those who might need smoke detectors. “We like to partner with them, so we do grant writing stuff,” Cohill said. “And I say ‘we’ because at Interfaith, we never said ‘I’ because it’s not one person, it’s everybody collectively who has just con-

tributed to the success.” That success comes from always having wonderful board members and volunteers.

Her wish for the next 25 years, she says jokingly, is to add to the volunteer base because the need is that great with everything going on.

Cohill said that when people make donations, they don’t understand they aren’t just helping Loaves and Fishes, they’re helping the food bank, they’re helping people keep their lights on, and helping with other programs at Martha’s House.

When asked how many people and families ISC has helped in her 25 years, Cohill said it’s difficult and wouldn’t know where to start when taking into account the different programs and how many people are in each program.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the food program, and Cohill said that would never change.

“As long as there’s a need, we’ll be there to fill it,” she said.

A moment from a recent summer camp involved a young girl at the camp being called the wrong name, her mother’s, because Cohill said she looked just like her and had also been to one of the camps.

“I shared that with her that I didn’t intentionally do it, but I just couldn’t help calling her by her mom’s name,” Cohill said.

Cohill has good memories of the summer camp trips to the heliport in Cumberland, which is a highlight for them.

“Just to see that excitement is wonderful,” she said.

One thing Cohill said people might not know is she keeps a drawer in her office full of the thank you cards and letters she receives from people she and ISC have helped out.

“I do that on purpose because sometimes there are difficult times and you think ‘Oh do I need to do this?’” she said. “As long as I can be productive and make a difference, I need to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Every so often she pulls out the cards and letters, seeing the names and stories, to reflect on things.

Some of her best memories are times with her volunteers who Cohill calls top notch and devoted.

“They believe they are making a difference, and they are. They believe that they are doing the Lord’s work, which is important,” Cohill said.

There have been some “really good times” at ISC but at the same time, Cohill said there have been some sad things ISC has been involved with, but they tried making it better for those people.

“It’s an emotionally draining job sometimes,” she said. Cohill admitted it’s always hard to meet with families who have lost everything in a house fire.

There are also cases that’s difficult for the ladies in the thrift store where someone will come in after being asked to be a pallbearer and can’t afford a suit but want to wear something nice. Cohill said they end up giving the person dress clothes to help them out.

“And that’s always sad that families and people going through loss,” she said.

Cohill added with the years she’s worked and lived in the town she loves, she could see the benefits of what ISC has done in the community.

For most of the 25 years of working for ISC, Cohill worked with Weatherholt who always backed her on her visions of projects.

Now, Jerry Spessard is president and Linda McCarty is vice president and Cohill calls both of them “fabulous” people, along with the rest of the board.

“I could not personally have hand picked a better board of directors,” Cohill said. “Everybody gets it. They understand our mission. They understand our programs. They’re wonderful.”

Cohill is in her 60s and could retire in a couple years and she doesn’t want to.

Cohill did say it would be foolish to say she hasn’t thought about retiring, but she tries not to think about it because it “makes me sad because I’ve enjoyed this so much.”

She said everyone at ISC is considered family.

Because she’s identified with ISC for so long, Cohill said she wouldn’t know what to do with herself.

She did admit she would want to come back and volunteer, but there would have to be time between retirement and beginning the volunteering because it wouldn’t be fair to the person who takes on the job after her.

Cohill does have a plan and that would include volunteering at Good Shepherd.

“I’m just very content and very happy and feel very blessed,” Cohill said.