Passionate about environmental education

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DURHAM – Bettie Kettell believes that by taking good care of the environment, we take good care of people.

Kettell of Durham brings that philosophy into her church, the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, on Royalsborough Road in Durham. She heads up the church’s Stewardship Committee, which not only tends to the financial needs of the church, but also its social responsibilities.

She spends several hours weekly as a volunteer for the Environmental Health Strategy Center, which staffs the Alliance for a Clean & Healthy Maine. Kettell, 67, also works several hours weekly on the church Stewardship Committee.

“I do a lot for the church, and churches by their nature are volunteer organizations,” Kettell said. “We also need to be good stewards of the earth.”

Kettell, a retired nurse, has lived for 36 years with her husband Charles in Durham, where they raised two children. Brought up as a churchgoer, she wanted to find a place of worship she could call home.

“We had never been in a situation where we thought we could put roots down enough to join a church,” she said. “There are larger ones with full choirs and everything in Brunswick and in Auburn. But I like going to church in the community where I live. It’s a connection. Some of these people are lifetime best friends.”

Kettell is passionate about the environmental works of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine.

“They focus on toxic chemicals in products,” she said. “I do a lot of advocacy talks and panel discussions. I’ve lobbied at the state and federal levels to repeal the Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976. It does virtually nothing to protect us from toxic chemicals. It covers only five chemicals, and there are 82,000 chemicals used on a regular basis. Only 200 have been tested for toxicity in humans.”

Kettell has survived breast cancer, and endures asthma that she developed later in life. She is noticing a significant increase in late-onset asthma, and wonders if chemicals have something to do with it.

In addition to her work with the alliance, Kettell serves on the board of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland. She attends lengthy meetings, works on subcommittees and recruits people to vote in environmentally friendly ways. She is proud that Maine is one of the first four states to pass the Kids Safe Products Act, which requires the state to identify priority chemicals of high concern. The legislation shifts the burden onto manufacturers to disclose the dangerous substances they add to consumer products, and authorizes the state to prohibit the sale of such products when developing children or fetus are exposed and safer alternatives are available.

“I’m passionate about it,” Kettell said. “People are getting sick from everyday products.”

Last March. through her work on the Congregational Church Stewardship Committee, Kettell arranged the screening of a documentary on global climate change. “Chasing Ice,” which documents ice loss during several years in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska, details the work of environmental photographer James Balog, whom National Geographic hired in 2005 to do time-lapse photography in the Arctic.

Interfaith Power & Light, a faith-based environmental organization, offered to make the film and promotional materials available to the Durham church. Kettell then contacted Lindsey Friedman, operations manager for “Chasing Ice,” for press materials to help promote the showing.

Peggy Brick of Durham is one of those church members who has become a friend of the Kettells. Their children grew up together, both have served as church deacons and on the Stewardship Committee.

“She’s very dedicated,” Brick said. “She’s very committed to our church. She has done environmental awareness at our church. She has arranged and shown films about environmental awareness. She has helped with environmental presentations at our church. That’s really her avocation. She takes that very seriously. Education to her is very important.”

Brick said that her church is not just a Congregational church, it’s an environmental church.

“I see it as a form of outreach,” she said. “The first film she showed brought in non-church members. Mailings are part of the stewardship campaign. We look for time and talent from people, not just money.”

The Stewardship Committee works hard to keep open the small church, whose acting pastor, the Rev. Peter Mercer, is part time. There are about 30 members, in addition to participants, some of whom are generous, Kettell said. The newsletter goes out to about 45 families.

“We’re right in the thick of our stewardship campaign, writing letters and so forth,” she said. “It’s actually kind of fun, because you hear things you didn’t know about people. We’re about to send a pledge letter. The money allows the Building Committee to come up with a budget for the year.”

The work is paying off.

“We are in a much better place than we were in two years ago,” Kettell said. “We were using a savings account to pay bills.”

Kettell also sings in the church choir, which performs during special events.

She also spends considerable time babysitting her two grandchildren.

“I keep busy,” she said.

Larry Grard is a staff writer at Current Publishing.

Bettie Kettell of Durham calls supporters from the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland. Kettell says that responsible stewardship of the Earth is a good mission for her church, the First Congregational Church of Durham.  

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