REM Award Honorees (2003) — Mary Coombs (Kotlas Connection)

Mary Coombs is a teacher of gifted and talented at Winslow Junior High School. She has taught in Winslow since 1986. Over the years she has taught social studies, reading, and currently accelerated science. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and her Certificate of Advanced study from the University of Maine at Orono. Mary and her husband Earl live in Winslow. They have two adult daughters, Jonna and Renee.

In 2000, Mary was recognized as an outstanding educator of gifted and talented receiving the Friends of the Gifted Award from the New England Educators of the Gifted and Talented. In 2002, Mary was named a Paul Harris Fellow, an award given by Rotary International Award for building international relationships.

Mary has been involved in the Kotlas Connection from the very beginning. Our attempts to establish a communication with Kotlas finally succeeded in 1988 when we received a package filled with artwork by Kotlas school children. Mary attended the opening of the box. She recalls how official it looked, wrapped in cloth with official seals closing it. A letter from Zinaida Ivanovna Egorova, a teacher of English in Kotlas, accompanied the package. Zina would eventually be a part of the first official delegation from Kotlas to Waterville and has visited here several times since.

That letter marked the beginning of a special relationship between Mary and Zina and prompted an exchange of student communications. This pen pal arrangement has gone on ever since, as has the relationship between the two women. As Mary says, “Zina and I have become like sisters.”

In 1989, Mary organized a student trip to Russia. Nineteen students and ten adults made the journey. During this trip that Natalia Kempers, Peter Garrett, and his daughter Jessica, slipped away to become the first Americans to visit Kotlas. The little party of Americans, flying from Kotlas, rejoined the full group in St. Petersburg. Zina Yegorova and Inna Tushina, another teacher of English in Kotlas, accompanied them. This meeting became very emotional as Zina greeted each American student, recognizing them from the pictures each had sent to his pen pal. For each student, she had a personal message and gifts. And, of course, the first face-to-face contact with each other left Mary and Zina even closer friends. The Cold War atmosphere was broken by the warm greetings exchanged. This was the ultimate purpose of the exchange, to establish person-to-person bonds.

In April of 1991, Mary returned to Russia with another group of students. This time, she and her students were able to go all the way to Kotlas. This visit was filled with sessions at schools, person-to-person communications, and lots of entertainment. The similarities and differences between our two cultures was explored. Since then, Mary has visited in Kotlas three more times. These most recent visits have been as part of adult exchanges, the latest in the summer of 2002. On each of these trips, Mary led the planning and organizing.

Mary and Earl have been host parents to six foreign students, three of them from Kotlas. So they have three Russian daughters — Yelena Vologdina; Anya Egorova (Zina’a daughter); and most recently, Marina Zaghigina. With the recent birth in February of Yelena’s son, Mary considers herself a grandmother at last!

Mary is also one of the co-organizers of the Russian Sampler. She works with Sheila McCarthy of the Colby Russian Department to plan a day for students to learn about Russia. (Sheila was on of last year's REM Award honorees.) Russian Sampler takes place each March on the Colby campus. Thousands of area junior high school students have participated over the years. The preparation for the day requires much planning and organization. Mary’s talents are well used in this endeavor.

Mary is a true volunteer. She steps forward and participates in all of the activities of the Kotlas Connection as well as in other organizations with which she is associated. Because of her years of dedication to the sister city relationship, we have chosen her as our volunteer of the year.

For more information about the Kotlas - Waterville Area Sister City Connection, please visit its website.

Skip to toolbar