For Kathryn B. Blair, the seat was the same; the view was anything but.
The pew was a familiar one. She’d sat in it, or one of its fellows, many times in its old home, the chapel of the United Church of Christ in Keene, which Blair has attended since she was about 8 years old. But this time, she was sitting some 8,000 miles away, in the pews’ new home in Mount Selinda, Zimbabwe. They were there because of Blair, because of her need to help and to improve.
That need was instilled in her early, by parents who felt it, too.
Blair, 61, was born a Barrett — “an upstairs Barrett,” she says — and grew up on the dairy farm at what is now Bretwood Golf Course, on East Surry Road in Keene. Her parents, Joye (an Extraordinary Women award winner in 2013) and Ellis, raised Blair and her four siblings upstairs in the old farmhouse, while her aunt and uncle brought up five children of their own downstairs.
“My mother was a very good role model for volunteering in the community — using the gifts you’ve been given to help others,” Blair says. “… My father, on the other hand, I remember him saying so many times, ‘God didn’t put you on this Earth to serve only yourself.’ ”
Joye Barrett was always active in the community, Blair says, serving as president of the Ladies Charitable Society and Women’s Fellowship, regent of the Ashuelot chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and a nine-year member of the Keene school board.
Ellis Barrett, meanwhile, “he was more quiet,” Blair says. “He was the one who would go mow someone’s lawn, shovel their walk, fix something that he saw needed to be fixed, kind of quietly, maybe even secretly.”
Following their example, she got involved early, getting her feet wet with community service through her 4-H club. She never looked back.
Now retired, Blair spent a 36-year career as a preschool occupational therapist — all but the first two years in Keene schools — helping kids with a range of developmental difficulties navigate their introduction to a classroom.
“It was really wonderful to work with a really good school district and wonderful colleagues and collaborate and hopefully make some really good difference in children’s and families’ lives,” she says, pointing out she viewed part of her role to be an ambassador for the district.
“When you work with preschoolers, you’re really introducing the school system to the whole family. So, you’re hopefully making a positive impact on more than just the child.”
Throughout Blair’s life — during her career, before and since — the church has been a constant, a source of community, comfort and celebration.
She and her husband, Mike, married there in October 1982.
Soon after their wedding, she served on her first church committee, the Christian education committee, “and I kind of have served on a lot of committees ever since,” she says with a laugh.
Her involvement with the church is what sparked her interest in Zimbabwe. In 1996, the United Church of Christ’s New Hampshire Conference formed a covenant with the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe, the Ukama/Partnership. The name “is based on (the Shona word) ‘hama,’ which means family … they thought our word ‘partnership’ was kind of business-like,” Blair says.
Keene’s church affiliated with a Zimbabwean counterpart, Mount Selinda Church, in November 1997, and as is her wont, Blair got involved soon after. She started out small, though — she got a pen pal. More than two decades later, Blair still has the pen pal — plus a few new ones — but her role in the covenant grew significantly. She recently retired as the chairwoman of the partnership committee, and over the years, she organized delegation visits from Zimbabwe and made four trips of her own to the southern African nation.
“Those face-to-face visits ... are so critical to developing and nurturing those relationships between churches and partners and learning about one another’s culture,” she says.
She’s also taken on oversight of a large-scale donation drive, in which church volunteers fill a 40-foot shipping container with all manner of useful or essential goods that might be difficult to come by in Zimbabwe, “things like generators, medical equipment, school supplies, books, clothing, shoes — you name it,” she says. And things like pews.
Keene’s UCC donated its chapel’s pews to Mount Selinda in one of its container shipments. The exchange was mutually beneficial: The Keene church got to recycle rather than retire pews that had held court in the chapel for years, and Mount Selinda Church was able to replace some badly worn seating.
But the Keene church wasn’t simply looking to upgrade its pews. Rather, the move was one step of an ambitious project Blair managed as church council chairwoman. The project, which began in January 2017, saw the church’s chapel renovated and much of its first floor transformed from outdated offices to a bright, open multipurpose community space, complete with a comfortable seating area and a children’s play space.
Blair is in the third year of her second stint as church council chairwoman — she held the post in the early ’90s, as well — and to call this go-around busy would be putting it mildly. The first-floor renovation was but the first of three significant projects she’s overseen so far, with a fourth on the horizon.
The second of those projects is one hardly anyone in the community could have missed: the restoration and repainting of the UCC’s steeple. The scaffolding around the façade and graying spire dominated the Main streetscape for half of 2017, finally removed in November to reveal a radiant and restored city icon.
The church secured funding from the N.H. Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, but the $70,000 grant covered only about 20 percent of the $330,000 project. The rest came from members of the congregation and community and local foundations.
“The community was really generous, really stepped up,” Blair said, “and I think really showed their support for the fact that the church is a significant landmark, if not the most significant landmark in the city of Keene.”
The third big project saw the third floor of the church’s annex converted into a spacious new home for Maps Counseling Service, which opened earlier this summer. According to Blair, the church plans to continue its construction craze by significantly expanding the playground in its Elsie Priest Park, off Court Street, the only fenced-in public play place in downtown Keene.
“We really feel like this is the community church; it has been for 280 years,” Blair says. “We want it to be a place of welcome, a place of light and hope for the community, for anyone who needs that kind of support.”
But not all of Blair’s service is expressed in skylines or international exchange. She’s a skilled seamstress and has used her talents to help costume MoCo Arts productions when her only child, August, now 20, was first performing with the group. Her first contribution was a batch of simple fleece hats, but that was before MoCo costume designer Jasmine Carroll caught wind of the full extent of Blair’s capabilities; for the company’s most recent production of Les Miserables, Blair sewed 16 lined jackets for the cast.
Though Blair specializes in collaborative, large-scale projects, some of her work is far more personal — if no less appreciated by the community. Each year, Blair plants a small garden at the corner of East Surry Road and Court Street, where the sign for Bretwood Golf Course stands. It’s a practice she picked up from her father, who has since passed away, when he gave it up in his 90s; she tends it in his honor, and for other family members who have died.
“I call it my Barrett, or Bretwood, Memorial Garden,” she says. “… I think about that as being the memorial garden for Elijah, my nephew who passed away from cancer; and my brother Bill, who passed away from cancer; my mom, Joye, and my dad, Ellis; and my aunt, Janice Barrett. All of those special family members are remembered when I’m working there.”
Though the project is personal, it brings a small spark of beauty that doesn’t go unappreciated in the community. Little of Blair’s work does. But she doesn’t want credit or accolades — “I’m not sure I feel very extraordinary,” she says when asked about this award. Instead, she just wants to live up to the standard her parents set.
“I guess the truth is that I feel like I’ve had a really blessed life and have so much to be grateful for,” she says. “Sharing some of the gifts I’ve been given is natural.”