Noël Bonam, AARP Maine’s new state director, comes to the job from a multicultural background, having grown up in India and served as director of Maine’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs from 2006 to 2010. At AARP Maine, he leads an organization with more than 200,000 members and a staff of seven employees.
Weeks into his new job, Bonham chatted with Mainebiz about what brought him to Maine, and what he aims to accomplish this year.
Mainebiz: What first brought you to Maine, and what inspired you to stay?
Noël Bonam: I first arrived in Maine in the summer of 2000 to meet up with very dear friends from Australia and to work together at a wonderful summer camp in Porter called Maine Teen Camp. When I first arrived, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I could live here for the rest of my life,” as I felt at home instantly. I think the universe was listening, as I was offered a job the day before I left Maine that summer and so I moved here that fall.
Very quickly, I built a community of friends who were kind and creative, and who cared about civic engagement just as much as I did. I had found my people! I had all the incentive I needed to stay.
MB: What sparked your interest in the multicultural sphere?
NB: From a young age, I was drawn towards building bridges and engaging with people that were very different from me. It helped that I spent my formative years in India, one of the world’s most diverse nations. That orientation helped me to become more aware of the differences and disparities that exist in other parts of the world, and I felt the need to do something about such differences. The more I got involved in multicultural and intercultural work, the deeper my commitment became for this work. I am very fortunate to have worked on interesting cross-cultural projects around the world.
MB: What’s on your 2021 to-do list at AARP Maine?
NB: I need to learn about the needs of aging Mainers and the barriers to age-friendly communities. I need to become familiar with the other stakeholders in this important work and to build on the strong relationships we already have with our key constituents and partners from across the state.
Another priority is to learn more about AARP itself, as it is a huge organization with a comprehensive network of departments and divisions that work together to achieve one common mission: To empower people to choose how they live as they age.
MB: What are some ways state lawmakers can increase support for family caregivers?
NB: Working to provide tax credits, other financial assistance, or both; and expanding participant-directed service models that permit payment to relatives in publicly funded home- and community-based programs.
MB: Affordable housing is another challenge. Any thoughts on possible solutions?
NB: Maine is leading the way on many of the issues that impact our oldest citizens, such as access to affordable, safe, senior housing. However, we should also be leading the nation in building a community that truly supports and includes our eldest citizens, especially in addressing such huge challenges. I also think supporting local actions through age-friendly communities across the state could provide key solutions.
MB: To what extent will you be working with AARP counterparts from other states?
NB: I have already begun working closely with my counterparts from other states, and with my peers from the matrix leadership team from across the country. As I am part of the leadership team for the Eastern Region, I will be working very closely with the chief executives of all the New England states and with regional leaders.
I am delighted to mention that my peer mentor is my counterpart from the U.S. Virgin Islands. AARP has 53 state offices including D.C., the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and there are comprehensive platforms in place for staff to work with each other across the organization.