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Hampden Masons transform returnables into scholarships and bicycles

It takes about 40 hours of work to get the bikes ordered, picked up and assembled.
Courtesy of Mystic Lodge #65

The winning students with their bicycles, helmets and visibility jackets provided by the lodge.
Courtesy of Mystic Lodge #65

By Julie Harris

The Weekly

HAMPDEN — The trailer that sits at 8 Main Road South may look like it has bags of returnable cans and bottles thrown into it, but really the conveyance contains scholarships, camperships and bicycles — lots of bicycles.

Mystic Lodge #65 of Hampden has been collecting returnable bottles and cans for the last few years, amounting to approximately $4,000 per year. The lodge uses that money to award academic scholarships to Hampden Academy students and camperships to Scouts, and to supply bicycles as prizes for kids participating in the Bikes for Books program in the town’s kindergarten-eighth grade schools and Edythe L. Dyer Community Library.

Bikes for Books is a simple program. A student reads a book, submits a ticket for having read that book and a drawing is held at the end of the school year to award bicycles to winners of the drawing. Two bicycles are awarded in each grade, one to a boy and one to a girl.

The town library’s program takes place over the summer and the library decides the criteria for awarding bicycles, according to Gaylen Jones, who started Hampden’s Bikes for Books program for Mystic Lodge. The Masons provided 10 bicycles to the library this year.

“The idea is to give the money back to the community, and to do it in a way that gives the best possible bang for the buck,” said Ron Francis, treasurer for the lodge and returnables program.

And with three $500 academic scholarships awarded to Hampden Academy graduating seniors who plan to attend a local technical school or community college, three weeklong $400 average camperships awarded one each to a Boy Scout, a Girl Scout and a Cub Scout, and more than two dozen bicycles that help promote reading, Mystic Lodge #65 certainly is giving back to the community.

But the community is an important partner in the lodge’s projects. People donate cans and bottles, loading them into the trailer that carries a banner explaining the proceeds will be used for the charitable causes of Mystic Lodge. After being alerted the trailer is full, Damon’s Beverage and Redemption retrieves it, processes its contents giving the Masons an extra penny per can or bottle, and sends the money to the Lodge.

“We are so thankful for the generosity of the community,” said Francis.

The Bikes for Books program also has a few sponsors who contribute to the money pool for buying bicycles, including Verizon Wireless, Katahdin Savings Bank, Bangor Savings Bank and the Maine office of the Masonic Charitable Foundation.

Ed Gardella, who is slowly taking over responsibility for the program from Jones, said it takes about 40 hours of work to get the bikes ordered, picked up and assembled. Assembly can take 30-45 minutes per bike.

“I’m pretty much a wrench man,” said Gardella. “I put them together and help with public relations.”

He said Jones still does much of the organizational work for the program, and that both of them had worked in bike shops as young men. Other members of the lodge help assemble the bikes too. And Lodge Master Chad O’Leary participates in the bike and campership presentations.

Gardella, who is a Mason, a Shriner and a member of Hampden Fire Department, said he is too busy these days to find much time to read, but loved to read when he was in school. He wants to help make it possible for Hampden’s youth to discover a similar love of reading.

His first exposure to the Mason’s Bikes for Books program was before he had joined the lodge. He said when his daughter was in fourth or fifth grade, she won a bike through the program and it piqued his interest.

“She already had a nice bike at the time, but rode the one that she won instead,” he said. She was proud to tell people she had earned it through Bikes for Books.

The heaviest participation is by students in third through sixth grades, he said.

“To see the looks on the faces of the kids on Raffle Day makes it worth it,” said Gardella.

Jones, who has been involved in Bikes for Books since 2010-11, said the Masons get smaller sized bikes to accommodate the younger students. Reeds Brook Middle School students get bigger bikes, and George B. Weatherbee School and Earl C. McGraw students get smaller bikes as appropriate.

He said people in the lodge work with bicycle manufacturers, most of which will provide the bikes at or near cost, and local stores will give breaks on prices when an occasional extra bike is needed.

The assembled bikes are lined up at the schools as incentive for a month before the Raffle Day drawings, he said.

The schools hold assemblies during which Gardella, Jones or even a student will pull the tickets to determine the girl and boy winners from each grade. Schools sometimes will have co-contests and award other prizes such as books.

Students who receive bicycles also receive helmets and high visibility yellow T-shirts. They also are invited to ride in Hampden Children’s Day parade or on Mystic Lodge #65’s parade float.

“I’ve seen some kids from years back who earned bikes from us and thank us again,” he said.

Jones said the more than 150-year-old Hampden lodge is one of several in the state that participate in Bikes for Books. Hampden was going to expand Bikes for Books into Winterport, but that town’s lodge started its own program. Several Bangor area lodges give out substantial numbers of bikes, and the Bangor lodge works with Bangor Public Library, he said.

The program in Maine actually started in southern towns and moved up throughout the state. Lodges in Aroostook County participate now too. The bicycles that come into Maine for all of the lodges fill two semi-trucks, Jones said.

He said there are no specific plans for expansion of the Hampden program, but the Masons are looking into the after-school programs and will continue discussions with Edythe Dyer Library.

As long as those cans and bottles keep coming in, Mystic Lodge will keep turning them into scholarships, camperships and Bikes for Books. And if proceeds increase, so will the amount given back to the community.

But for the Masons, it’s definitely about the kids.

“Almost every year, we will get thank you notes from some of the kids, and that’s pretty cool,” said Jones.

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