In Bangor, A Mighty Advocate for Cancer Patients, Founded By a College Student
His own loss led Matt Dexter to aid Mainers affected by cancer.
By Susan Geib | Photographed by Molly Haley
The young guy with the pressed shirt and unassuming smile handing out groceries from a tent outside Brewer’s Northern Light Cancer Care? That would be Matt Dexter. The executive director and sole employee of the Christine B. Foundation was 13 when he lost his mother, Christine, to stomach cancer, and he has since followed her example in what he calls “very simple acts of kindness, practiced constantly.” Dexter was a junior at UMaine when he established his foundation, six years ago, but he shrugs off any suggestion that this is a feat for an undergrad.
“Starting a foundation came naturally,” he says. “Anyone can do it.”
Dexter, who grew up near Boston, fell in love with Maine during trips with family friends to the Belgrade Lakes. UMaine was an obvious choice, and he has since stuck around eastern Maine, in part because he feels it’s where he can do the most good. Cancer is Maine’s leading cause of death, with the highest incidence in eastern Maine’s Piscataquis, Penobscot, Hancock, and Washington counties. His foundation’s original initiative was a relay run from Portland to New York City, called the Eastern Trek for Cancer, that’s raised some $160,000 since 2015. Some of those funds helped support a network of “cancer navigators” at two eastern Maine health organizations, trained to help patients manage their care. Some funded scholarships for college students affected by cancer, and some the foundation distributed to other Maine orgs focused on increasing access to care.
Heading into 2020, Dexter hoped to broaden the foundation’s operations. “We had spent a lot of time understanding what the community really needs,” he explains, “and food assistance stood out.” Working together with Brewer’s Eastern Area Agency on Aging, the Christine B. Foundation hatched a plan to provide free, healthful grocery packages — the equivalent of 1,000 meals — to cancer patients, survivors, and their families. “We planned to kick it off over the summer,” Dexter says. “Then March happened.”
Expediting its plans, the foundation began distributing grocery packages every weekday outside Northern Light. And it’s been able to scale up the program dramatically, thanks to a partnership with the Brewer Area Food Pantry and donations from individuals and foundations. Through the United Way of Eastern Maine, Dexter has recruited drivers to deliver groceries directly to homes throughout the four counties. As of late August, the foundation and its partners had distributed the equivalent of 20,000 free meals.
Nutrition isn’t the program’s only benefit, Dexter explains — he and his volunteers also lend their ears for “unconditional nonclinical conversations.”
“We don’t know what patients have gone through right before seeing us,” Dexter says. “Kindness is so important in a proud community like ours, where people don’t always embrace vulnerability.”
Outside of the foundation, Dexter admits, he doesn’t have much of what many 26-year-olds might consider a life. Recently, he made his first-ever trip to Acadia, and he savors his daily runs. But mostly he works. “I learned early that life is very short,” he says, “and I’ve committed mine to this. I want to leave a value legacy, and there’s no better time to start than when you’re young.”