Person of the Week
Colin Bennett: It’s All About Community
Anonymously helping neighbors in need is on way Colin Bennett likes to give back to the Deep River community. (Photo courtesy of Colin Bennett )
When he needed a used refrigerator, Colin Bennett did what any media savvy Gen-Xer would do: He put the word out of Facebook. And, of course, he found one, not for his own kitchen but as a community refrigerator outside the back of the bookstore he owns, Bennett’s Bookstore, at 171 Main Street in Deep River.
The idea is that those who are able can contribute food to the refrigerator. Those who need food are welcome to come and take supplies at no cost. Colin used his own funds to stock the refrigerator, which only started operating a few weeks ago, but he points out that the refrigerator is the ideal place for households to contribute food which would otherwise be wasted.
A recent study by Penn State University found that on average American households waste 30 percent of the food they buy. “Why are people hungry when so much food is thrown away,” he asks.
So far, he says, the response to the refrigerator project has been “super positive. People say they support the concept.”
The refrigerator is unlocked so food will be available 24 hours a day to anyone who needs it. Colin, who checks daily to remove items that have gone beyond their expiration date, says that a few people every day seem to be availing themselves of the supplies.
The refrigerator is not Colin’s only nutrition-related project. He had already started a community pantry for non-perishable items in a shed at the back of the bookstore. Like the refrigerator, it’s open 24 hours a day and items are free.
Now here’s something that’s easy to figure out: What’s the common thread in Community Pantry and Community Refrigerator and a bookstore that Colin says is not devoted to profit but to plowing the money it makes back into community projects. It is, of course, Colin’s commitment to his notion of community.
“I want the pantry and the refrigerator to be a catalyst for positive change. That is what the bookstore is. Any profit we make goes back to the community,” he says. “The whole point is helping others to the best of my ability. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s genuine. It’s what I’ve believed for the vast majority of my adult life. It makes me better and it makes the world better.”
The Community Bookstore, Colin explains, works on a membership basis; members get to select free books every so often depending on what level of membership they buy. At the moment, Colin admits the store, which has used books, has only some dozen members, but non-members can also buy books. On a recent weekend, people from both Maine and New Jersey shopped at the store, which is open after school and on weekends.
“You know people always like to drop into bookstores when they go someplace,” Colin says.
The bookstore is open after school weekdays and on weekends. During school days, Colin earns his living as a substitute teacher in the East Haddam school system. He is also a registrar of voters in Westbrook, where he lives—”But I spend all my time in Deep River,” he says.
In recent summers, he has been the director of the Petttipaug Sailing Academy in Essex, but this summer the pandemic forced cancellation of the program.
Colin grew up moving between New York State and Connecticut, and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a B.A. in communications. He’s enrolled in a master’s degree program in Women’s Studies at Southern, though he says he hasn’t taken a course in several years. Women’s studies, he says, enabled him to focus on many different marginalized populations.
“It’s a way to learn about the people of color, the LGBTQ community,” he says.
Colin organized a recent LBGTQ rally in Deep River on National Coming Out Day. Colin organized a much larger really supported by many of the Deep River Merchants last year, but COVID-19 made that inadvisable this year. Still, he says, he was happy with the smaller event.
“We just couldn’t let the day go by,” he says.
He says organizing this year’s rally would have been impossible without Valley Regional High School student Frannie Leigus. Colin explained to her after she asked for a job at the bookstore that he couldn’t pay but she was so enthusiastic and persistent that he made her an intern. She has done so well that now her title is “bookstore fellow.”
In college, Colin found an outlet for his growing interest in the environment. He recalls the eye-opening experience he had going to a conference in Vermont.
“I realized that I was not the only one out there interested in these things,” he says. “It really energized me.”
The energy remains. Colin is a longtime Sierra Club member who has been active in various projects on both the local and national level. Tree hugger is not an epithet he shuns.
“Hugging trees feels good. I hug trees all the time,” he says. “All species need a healthy planet, but it’s not just about trees. We need a clean environment, clean water. We need to stop global warming.”
In 10 years, Colin says he would like to live in a big house with a lot of land. Not a fancy house but one with a lot of room. That’s because the house would be full of foster children he would sponsor. Colin, who has a grown daughter, says he wants no more biological children.
“I don’t want more kids of my own,” he says. “I love caring for foster children.”