DUBLIN — Margaret Nelson has what some might call “honest eyes” that look you straight in the face with no hint of guile. They convey that she means what she says and says what she means — the proverbial straight-talking Yankee trait that was probably her birthright after being born and raised in a small town in Maine.
That natural and forthright-yet-friendly manner likely comes in handy in her role as the executive director of The River Center. The Peterborough-based nonprofit organization offers an almost endless portfolio of services and activities, all aimed at helping families scattered in a large chunk of southeastern Cheshire and western Hillsborough counties. Not only does she interact with many of the 1,800 people The River Center serves annually, but also its dozen employees and more than 100 volunteers.
More on the River Center later. First, about Nelson herself:
The youngest of three children, Nelson was raised in Greene, Maine, where her family has deep roots. Her father’s father was the town’s doctor for many years, her grandmother a local newspaper reporter. Her own father was the news editor of the nearby Lewiston Sun Journal, a veteran who had suffered injuries in World War II and who Nelson credits with instilling in her a passion for community involvement.
“My father was the town moderator. He donated the land on which the library was built. He was on the library board and the school board. I grew up knowing that being involved in your community was very important,” she says. “My job here at the center combines many of my passions for being involved.”
Nelson graduated from The University of Maine in Orono with a degree in business administration and met her husband, David, at a church in Bangor. At the time, she was working in human resources at the Bangor Mental Health Institute.
Nelson and her husband share a love of the outdoors, even becoming engaged at Acadia National Park, the jewel in the crown of Maine’s outdoor attractions, near the coastal town of Bar Harbor. Later in their marriage, with three young daughters in tow, they would embark on three separate cross-country camping trips, each six weeks long and traversing 10,000 miles. “We camped in tents,” not in fancy campers, she adds.
After their wedding, as young couples often do, they wanted to relocate and set out on their own. “My husband is from Connecticut, I’m from Maine, so we looked at a map for a place that might be between the two places,” she says. Her husband’s family owned a small cottage near Swanzey Lake, and the two moved there, intending it to be a temporary place until something else came along — “a three-room cabin out in the woods,” she says.
“We were there six years.”
After moving to Swanzey, Nelson got a job as assistant human resources director at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and worked there until 1988, when she became pregnant with her first daughter. Two more daughters were to follow. She decided she’d stay home to raise the children.
She and her husband then found a piece of property for sale in Dublin, across from Mud Pond, an ill-named body of water that is not actually mud but a beautiful lake. Her husband, a professional artist, built a Craftsman-style home on the property in 1992. They still live there.
After their daughters were “launched,” as she says, she wanted to re-join the workforce, knowing she might be unqualified since she’d taken a relatively long hiatus from paid work to raise a family. In 2008, she secured a job at the now defunct Cable Connections of Walpole, working there a year before she was laid off.
“We were selling FIOS (fiber-optic networks) to multiple-tenant landlords in the greater Boston area.” It was a difficult and demanding job, calling on potential customers, she says. However, she learned much about how to sell, as the position required quite a bit of “cold-calling,” which anyone in sales knows is one of the most challenging tasks in the profession. “Being laid off was a good thing; it taught me what I didn’t want to do.”
As a networking move, she joined a nonprofit group called the Greater Monadnock Society for Human Resource Management and through a contact there learned about the opening at The River Center.
“I didn’t think I was qualified, but I applied. I think it was the last résumé they received,” she says.
It earned her an interview, and she was hired as executive director in 2010. Two aspects of her background the board found attractive, she says, were her experience in human resources and organizing volunteers. For a dozen years, she had been the volunteer teaching director for Community Bible Study, an international nondenominational Christian-oriented program with a local chapter at the Monadnock Congregational Church in Peterborough that included participants from 24 different churches in 16 surrounding towns. The program is still in operation.
Her commitment to Christianity has been a significant component in her life, although she and her husband do not belong to a specific denomination and attend a variety of churches. Her eldest daughter, Emily Nelson Walsh, is married to an Anglican priest, and the two live with their three children in Kigali, Rwanda. Her husband works with an organization there called Hope on a Thousand Hills, which is run by the Anglican Diocese of Rwanda and provides comprehensive services to children.
“Margaret is just an amazing person,” says Laura Gingras, vice president of philanthropy and community relations at Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, who is also a friend and a member of The River Center’s board of directors.
“She is a tireless advocate for people in need. ... She has all the qualities of a great leader; she can get in the weeds if she has to, but she’s always thinking strategically. She’s a natural connector. She has no ego; she just gives of herself,” Gingras says.
The River Center, housed in the former headquarters of Brookstone Corp. in Peterborough, is a comprehensive service organization that assists families through a wide variety of programs. Its Early Home Support program, for example, aids at-risk pregnant women and their babies, helping mothers with parenting skills, rides to medical appointments and developmental screening for children. The center’s Wood Bank provides supplemental and emergency wood for heating, with local volunteers chopping, stacking and delivering wood to those in need. Money Matters, another program, offers tools to improve financial situations through a free tax preparation and money coaching service. It also provides workshops, counseling and a public speaker program.
Nelson explains that with most of the center’s clients, it’s not just one problem they face, but a matrix of challenging issues. Among them might be drug use, unemployment, the absence of a stable family structure, unawareness of available social services, mental illness, domestic violence, poor nutrition, less-than-ideal prenatal care or lack of a car or transportation.
“The role I see for myself is to make sure my staff has all they need to work with families and individuals,” she says. “What we do is so needed; it’s important and I try not to get overwhelmed by the big picture of all the need out there. I concentrate on the individual, on our corner of the world.”
The center receives no government assistance, Nelson says, and relies on private contributions, with fundraising a significant part of her job. Local individuals and organizations have been very generous with contributions, she says, although funding is a continual challenge.
The River Center was recognized this year as a New Hampshire Family Resource Center of Quality by the Governor’s Council on Wellness and Primary Prevention. In 2017, it was named the Non-profit of the Year by the Greater Peterborough Chamber of Commerce.
“Margaret works to achieve sustainable solutions; she’s not looking to give handouts, but how can she help an individual person help themselves in the short term and long term,” Gingras says. “She’s remarkable.”