By Clark Judge
(October 29, 2022) — Seldom has the power of a grassroots movement been more evident than the recent campaign to Save Deer Lake. Against all odds, a local nonprofit raised $4.75 million to save the 255-acre property in Killingworth from private development and preserve it as open space.
But you knew that.
What you may not know is that Pathfinders, Inc., Deer Lake’s new owner, will celebrate those most responsible for its purchase – the 1,400 donors from 87 Connecticut towns, 34 states and four countries who made it possible — with an open house on Sunday, October 30, 2022 that runs from 10:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m.
Environmental groups like Save the Sound and the Killingworth Conservation Land Trust will be there. So will representatives from DEEP and the American Chestnut Foundation. There will be guided hikes … face painting … a silent auction … a fly-fishing demonstration … food, drink, music … and an explanation of the Maeve Effect.
The Maeve Effect. It refers to the impact a nine-year-old named Maeve Browne had on the Save Deer Lake campaign, and it’s more than a catchy sobriquet.
It is real.
You might remember Maeve as the third-grader at Killingworth Elementary School who in April went on a WTNH broadcast to urge Killingworth citizens to protect Deer Lake. The interview lasted no more than a minute, but it had an immediate impact.
It provoked other school children to follow.
“Her reach became very broad”
In essence, Maeve recounted how she was so determined to keep Deer Lake free from development that she launched her own fundraising campaign. With the consent of school administrators, she held a Pajama Day at KES that, in the end, netted nearly $2,700 in donations –including $1,919 in cash.
The story gained widespread attention and produced an immediate reaction. Within weeks, more elementary schools responded. The Eliot School Activity Fund in Clinton donated $734. The H-K Middle School offered $222. And the Totoket Elementary School in North Branford pitched in another $87.
That’s over $960 in donations. Now add that to Maeve’s total, and you have over $3,600 in money from school children.
“Her reach became very broad,” said Katie Browne, Maeve’s mother. “After her story went public, we had people contacting me through the grapevine and sometimes coming to her softball games in Clinton to give us money. A lot of people weren’t sure what to do. But after they saw Maeve, they thought: You know what? I’ve got to give this everything I can.”
And so they did.
“I think there definitely was a Maeve Effect,” said Christina Forristall, whose two children spearheaded a fundraiser at the H-K Intermediate and Middle Schools. “By doing one fundraiser, she empowered others in the community to go out and support Deer Lake the best way they could.”
Now a fourth-grader at H-K Intermediate School, Maeve had no idea what to expect when she launched her drive. Now that she does, she confessed she’s as “relieved” that Deer Lake has been protected as she is surprised that she played a role in its purchase.
“I’m kinda shocked,” she said.
She isn’t alone. When Pathfinders held a Sept. 16 news conference to announce the acquisition of Deer Lake from the Boy Scouts, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called the move “a profoundly important movement” and “a triumph of hope over experience.”
“This wasn’t just a come-from-behind victory for Deer Lake and this community,” said state Attorney General William Tong. “This was a Hail Mary. There were a bunch of times when it looked like it wouldn’t work out.”
“She made more people aware”
But that’s the point of Sunday’s celebration. It did work out. And it worked out with help from an unlikely source – a 9-year-old who raised more money than anyone thought imaginable through donations at school.
Said Maeve: “Some kids that I don’t know who are in my school say, ‘Oh, you’re Maeve. You’re the kid who saved Deer Lake.’ That makes me happy for what I did.”
She should be. She helped galvanize a community to save a parcel of land that state Sen. Christine Cohen called “magical.” More than that, she became the face of a remarkable community effort that made so much noise its message reverberated across the country – with NPR, the Associated Press, USA Today and Washington Post among a myriad of media outlets that carried its story.
“She made more people aware,” said Pathfinders’ chairman Ted Langevin, “and she made them think how important it was to people her age and, maybe, how important it should be to others who could be donating money. We’re so grateful because she’s the future of grassroots movements like ours.”
Maeve, who lives within walking distance of Deer Lake, will attend Sunday’s celebration. In fact, she said she’ll join her parents at a vendor’s booth, selling walking sticks carved by her grandfather from locally resourced wood and marketed at an August function on the property.
“We’ll probably be handing out candy, too,” she said.
What makes her involvement with Deer Lake so intriguing isn’t that she had never undertaken a fundraiser before, but that she had no connection with the Deer Lake summer youth camp … until this year, that is. When she raised money for the property, she knew it only as deep woods with trails that she and her family walked. Two months later, she and her 6-year-old sister, Isla, attended their first two-week session of summer camp.
Both plan to return next year.
“That’s the thing that got me,” said Patty Clifton, who has run the camp the past 36 years with husband Mark. “Maeve had never been to camp before. Yet she thought to do this in the spring … before camp even began.”
“It just shows you how many people’s lives it touched that we don’t know about,” said Mark Clifton. “She wasn’t even on our radar.”
Maybe not, but she’s been on the radar of others for months. Call it the Maeve Effect or heartfelt gestures. Maeve Browne made a difference by stepping out in front of a fundraising effort that few believed would succeed. Yet, she and hundreds of others who may be at Deer Lake Sunday, pulled off the improbable by demonstrating the strength of a community when it pulls together.
”I feel a little more hopeful now when I try to do things,” Maeve said, “because I know I did something that can have an impact. I learned that if you really put your mind toward what your goal is, you can accomplish it.”
Photos by Clark Judge