Before he started last July as state director of AARP Maine, Noël Bonam ran an international NGO consulting with agencies worldwide on issues of leadership and social change. A few years before, he led Maine’s Bureau of Multicultural Affairs. That wasn’t long after directing HIV/STD programs for Portland’s public-health department, which was some years after his work in suicide prevention in his hometown of Hyderabad, India. An assortment of other positions filled in along the way — oh, and throughout his career, he’s been heavily involved in theater and the arts.
But looking back at a résumé he calls “diverse, to use a polite adjective,” Bonam sees a common thread: a mission of engagement, as he puts it, a call to drum up a sense of belonging and shared purpose, whether it’s among audience members in a theater or, these days, the 40 percent of Mainers in AARP’s over-50 demographic.
Recently, he took his engagement mission on the road, sort of, during a seven-session “virtual listening tour” with Mainers from every region of the state. There were plenty of shared concerns, with housing availability and affordability ranking high. But the sessions also helped him appreciate anew the state’s tradition of neighborliness, Bonam says, pointing for evidence to Maine’s leadership in AARP’s Age-Friendly Communities program, which counts some 80 Maine towns among 660 nationwide where local leaders have committed to action plans addressing issues like social inclusion and senior-friendly housing and transportation.
That sense of community instantly appealed to Bonam when he came to Maine 22 years ago, to lead arts education at a summer camp in Porter. So did the rural calm and abundant woods and waters — very unlike his urban upbringing in India. When he considers spots that have left the biggest impression on him, he remembers a dusk canoe trip with the late Passamaquoddy leader, musician, and writer Allen Sockabasin on the George Brook Flowage, near Indian Township, or Motahkomikuk. “We came to a place where we stopped paddling and just listened,” Bonam recalls. “Then, Allen said, ‘You know, you’re probably the first Indian who’s ever been to this spot — Indian who’s not an Indian, I mean.” It’s a bittersweet memory of his friend’s wry sense of humor and a cherished one of a wild and remote setting. “It was Maine at its best,” Bonam says. “Breathtakingly beautiful, pristine, and perfect.”