Heather Shields grew up on North Haven, a remote Maine island with a year-round population of 350. Reaching the mainland by ferry boat was a 75 minute commitment – one way. Join Dr. Lisa Belisle as she discusses Heather’s formative island years that led her to understand, profoundly, that we all must learn how to get along. Heather built upon the foundation of her childhood experiences when she became a single mom living in the greater Portland Maine area and entered the now frenzied world of Maine residential real estate. Heather also reflects on the work of Portland Art Gallery artist, and fellow North Haven native, Eric Hopkins. If you’re not currently living in Maine, you’ll want to move here after listening to Heather Shields.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today I'm speaking with a longtime friend of mine, also a wonderful real estate professional, and island-off-the-coast of Maine native, Heather Shields. Nice to have you here today.
Heather Shields: Thank you for having me, Lisa.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have kind of a story book upbringing. Not that many people can say that their father was a ferry boat captain.
Heather Shields: That's absolutely true. I'm lucky. I grew up on a little island off the coast of Maine and my dad was the ferry boat captain for 35 years running the ferry between Rockland and North Haven. So it was definitely different than for most people.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What was it like to grow up on North Haven? That's not an island like the one I currently live on, which is connected by causeways and bridges and pretty close to the mainland. You're pretty far out there.
Heather Shields: We were twelve miles out to be exact. I always say to people, luckily, I didn't know any different. I had three other kids in my class and I had 20 kids in my high school and anything we ever wanted to do, we took an hour and 15 minute ferry ride to get there. So it was a little different than most, but I didn't know that it was different until I moved to the mainland. So I feel pretty blessed to have had that upbringing.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You had three people in your graduating class total just to clarify?
Heather Shields: Four people, including myself.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And were you all together as a school from grades K through 12? Or how did that work?
Heather Shields: So we started kindergarten together and we graduated together. We did have a few drop-ins in between (kindergarten and graduation) of people who would try to move to the island and live there year-round. But it's certainly not for the faint of heart. So we ended up graduating together; the four of us.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Did you like each other?
Heather Shields: (laughs) Well when you grow up that way you're like brothers and sisters. So we definitely liked each other. It was just like a sibling relationship. So, again, we didn't know any different and they were definitely very close relationships. I still know where they are and what they're doing. It's not like we have reunions because we don't really need them.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Are they also living in Maine? Do they live still on North Haven?
Heather Shields: Two of them live on North Haven and two of us are not on the island anymore. One is in Alaska. He was with the military. We definitely spread out a little bit.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: As someone raised in suburbia, and I know that you also raised your kids in suburbia, we had after school sports and the ability to do arts programs. When you're on North Haven, in a class of four, how do you do things like soccer, lacrosse, music?
Heather Shields: So, we had one sport and that was basketball. I was a starting forward in eighth grade for the high school basketball team. We didn't really have a lot of other choices. There was a little bit of cross country. We had a music program in school. Anytime we wanted to play a sport, we had to go to the mainland to compete against a team. So, in the wintertime, for example, if we wanted to play against a team like most high schools sports do we would travel on the Friday afternoon ferry. We would drive to wherever the location would be which sometimes was as far away as Rangeley. And we would play a game at 6:00 PM that night and we would spend the night in a host's home. Each parent of each kid took two students. Then we would play again the next morning just to have the two required basketball games. So it was a weekend to go anywhere. Our parents never came to the games. It was just us traveling on the bus to very faraway places. It was epic to be a high school kid playing basketball on a little island off the coast of Maine
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And Rangeley, for people who don't know Maine very well, is also remote, but inland. It’s in the mountains, in the lake area. That's a really long trek to play basketball.
Heather Shields: It was a haul, but it was fun. I remember staying in people's houses and waking up the next morning, and it was like minus 16 degrees. And we weren't used to that. When you're on a little island, surrounded by the ocean, your temperature doesn't drop like inland Maine where there could be three feet of snow. We didn't usually get the crazy snow storms or the crazy low temperatures. So it was always an experience to be going on a little exchange to play a sport in another part of the state. So it was definitely different. But again, not knowing any different, it was kind of cool.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: The idea of you being the starting forward in the eighth grade, I mean, you're with the senior girls, and with players who are probably a little bit further along in their growth development, a little taller, a little bigger, they’ve been playing a little longer. Was that ever intimidating for you?
Heather Shields: I was pretty tall when I was 13 years old. So that kind of helped but, yes, playing against seniors who were extremely good basketball players when we only had like eight people on our basketball team was pretty daunting. One year we made the tournament in Augusta which was a really big deal when you're from a little island off the coast of Maine to go to Augusta and play against the best teams. We lost miserably. It was daunting because I was very young to be out there with the crowd watching us. It was a big deal for the little island of North Haven.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You're talking about going to the Augusta Civic Center and being watched by enormous crowds of people because, in Maine, the state basketball championships are really very important. It's definitely a crowd event. People come from all over the state and, as you said, you're from a much smaller space. So to have all those eyes on you, must have been a fascinating experience.
Heather Shields: It was pretty fascinating especially since at our gymnasium on the island the three point line actually overlapped with the center court line. Our gym was extremely small and the sidelines, if a ball went out of bounds, you would actually hit the wall, trying to get it. It was super small. When you go to Augusta and the court is much larger it's also exhausting to run back and forth when you're not used to a gymnasium that large. It was an interesting experience
Dr. Lisa Belisle: As I'm listening to all of this, I'm struck by your need to be flexible. You are spending time with host families. You don't know them very well but, at the same time, you are also spending time with kids that you know really well. And there's probably the same types of sibling rivalries and conflicts that go on as in families that are biological. You need to go from small spaces to big spaces. You travel from island topography to inland topography. So how did that shape the way that you experienced your growing years and how did that influence you as an adult?
Heather Shields: That's a really good question. I always am struck by the fact that growing up on an island that has 350 people year-round, that you see day in and day out, at the post office or grocery store or wherever. There's not a lot of flow of outside influence other than in the summer which is a very different story. It sort of forces you to find a way to get along with anybody regardless of your differences. I think that creates a huge amount of flexibility and helps me now in my adult life to look at everybody and see everybody and realize that, even though we're different, there's always a way to make it work because we all have to live together. I'm really grateful for my island upbringing for that reason. I think it's made me who I am and I think it's helped me deal with anybody, from any walk of life, and feel grateful for that human contact.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Flash forward to your current day life and your current day work. You're also called upon to really get to know people quickly in kind of an intimate way as you're trying to find exactly the right home for them, and to be flexible with their needs and wants, and helping them to make the right fit. Has that been more challenged lately in the pandemic world where it's also been very fast moving in the real estate market?
Heather Shields: I think it has. With the influx of people to Maine, my upbringing helps me to be able to relate to anybody from anywhere in the world or country. But I think just trying to usher people into Maine, helping them sort of realize who we are as a state, and who we are as people. This housing market is nuts but they've seen it from where they've come from in New York, California, Washington DC but we're not really used to this. And we haven't been used to this having been in the real estate industry for 17 years now, I can't relate to it. I haven't seen anything like it. I'm really trying to help people understand how to navigate it. It's not easy. It's different and it's frustrating. But the payoff of living here is so huge that it's worth it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What do you hear most from people about what they're looking for? Why are they coming to Maine and what would they like their homes to be like?
Heather Shields: I think people are looking for that sense of community that Maine offers but also that small town feel. Even in Portland, we have that small town feel. You can go to the grocery store and see someone you know, you can walk down Commercial Street in Portland and see someone you know. That's a beautiful thing. It’s something that I'm so grateful for. We also have so much natural beauty. We have incredible restaurants. We have so much outside availability and activity with our beaches and our mountains and our lakes. We are so incredibly lucky and I think people are starting to recognize that they can work from home now and that they can come here and have their remote jobs and live in this place that offers all of that is really hard to find.
Heather Shields: Having traveled outside of the state of Maine, and even though I'm a native Mainer, I always want to return home and feel that comfort of walking down the street. Everybody says hello. Everybody is friendly. It's hard to find a food scene like we have in Maine. We're so lucky and I think that what's really attracting people is just all of that; our people. People come here and feel like everywhere you drive on I295 you see the ocean. You're not stuck in traffic, you're going to the grocery store by walking. It's just such a beautiful lifestyle. We are incredibly lucky and people are recognizing that from all over the country and they want what we have.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Behind me in the studio, I have a piece called Horizon Ether and it's by artist Eric Hopkins who happens to be a native of your island. It's a swath of blue and a horizon line that one might see from an airplane. It speaks of the vastness of space which, when you talk about being able to see the ocean when you're driving down I295, I think is something that is very special to me. Just the sense of openness and freedom and ability to move around. Is that something that you think is important in this post lockdown world where people are kind of chomping at the bit to get back out there?
Heather Shields: Absolutely. One hundred percent. And let me just say Eric - shout out to Eric. He's absolutely amazing. He captures the beauty that I see that I wish I could capture. I just admire his work and his ability. I think absolutely, just having everywhere we look this beauty is something that people wish they could have. That’s what's driving people here. You can't blame them.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Heather, why did you choose to go into the field that you did? You work for Legacy Properties Sotheby's International Realty in Portland. You said you've been in the field for 17 years and it sounds like this was a very conscious decision on your part. What was it about this field that appealed to you?
Heather Shields: Before I got into real estate, and when I was on the island, I was the director of a pretty amazing nonprofit out there that built a community center. I learned about what it felt like to bring people together, as part of that community center and, when I decided to leave the island, I was a single mom and thinking, okay, what sort of translates? What's a good way for me to interact with people on a daily basis to feel that feeling that you get when you bring people together and make people happy and you help them with the biggest transition of their life. And also I needed a little flexibility because I was a single mom.
Heather Shields: Real estate offers flexibility but it's also super demanding. I found that it helped me be with my daughter in her really formative years. It also helped me meet people, bring people together, help them find what they've always dreamed of and help them feel whole as people. I started and, it's hard when you start, this was 2004 and it was just before real estate market went south in 2007, 2008. The moment I did my first transaction, it just felt it was just exactly the right fit for my personality. It was absolutely perfect. It was just the most rewarding job I felt like that I'd ever had. And again, it just allowed me to be my daughter's lacrosse coach or be her Brownie troop leader. I was meeting people and I was able to introduce new people coming into communities to people that I already knew. And it was just a natural, wonderful fit. So, 17 years later, I can't imagine myself doing anything else because I get to show people our state, I get to show people everything that I love and everything I'm completely and utterly passionate about.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What are some of the things that you are completely and utterly passionate about? Some of the places that you love to go to and things that you love to do?
Heather Shields: I think North Haven is one of the places I love to go to. I always say, you need to go to Penobscot Bay, you need to visit these islands. You need to see and witness what Eric Hopkins has painted because you just can't describe it. You definitely can't describe it. You need to go hike Katahdin, or you need to go to the Camden Hills or Scarborough beach. There are so many different areas of Maine like Sebago Lake. Where else can you find the mountains, the ocean and the lakes that we have and that that Maine offers. And I also think discovering downtown Portland, going to our restaurants, our local farmer's market in Deering Oaks park. And then checking out some of the local businesses. I think we are passionate about our local businesses here in Maine. You know, there's some incredible local businesses everywhere I travel in Maine. You just can't find what we have here. That's what I'm passionate about. So that's a long list, but that's the gist.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You and I have daughters of roughly the same age. And I know that your daughter is not only going back to North Haven but is also working on something that's kind of farther afield. She's actually doing some work that's related to Mexico. So it's interesting that she's followed your path in a way that she's staying linked to the homeland but also is venturing forth. Is that something you've encouraged her to do?
Heather Shields: Oh, one hundred percent. I mean, her dad is on the island. Her dad's a fifth-generation boat builder. His family has lived on the island for hundreds of years and she's got really strong family ties there which I think is really special. And, I do too. My mom is there, my sister's there, my niece is there on the island. So, for my daughter, going back to the island in the summer is part of who she is. It's woven into her fabric. She has a passion for helping people as well in a much different way than me. She's very passionate about seeing the world, helping people and making sure that her talents and her expertise are far afield. She's so lucky and her dad and I are both super proud of her. She'll always go back to North Haven just like I will every summer. It's just a special place.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Seems that it is not an uncommon story for Maine where people are raised here and have a deep love for the state and oftentimes will go elsewhere and then return. Is there something about Maine that brings people back that's different from other places?
Heather Shields: That's a good question. I think about my sister because my sister is very similar to my daughter, actually, in that she left the island, she went to Colorado College, she traveled all over South America. We wouldn't hear from her for weeks and now she's settled back on the island with her daughter and her husband. I don't know with my daughter but I wonder if she will follow that path of just traveling and coming back to live here. I think it's the people. I really think it's the people. It's funny because I will often show a house in Portland or I'll be downtown and I'll leave my keys in the car and I won't lock the door of my car.
Heather Shields: And people from out of state will come here and they'll immediately lock their car. And we're in a suburban part of Maine, we're in Yarmouth, or whatever it is. And I just think to myself, part of growing up here is that I'm so trusting because people are genuinely good and I think Mainers are just generally good. And I love that. That ability to walk down the street and that ability to see people I know everywhere I go and feel that someone's got my back. I think that's what brings us back here. That's what makes us feel like this is the best place on earth to raise your kids or live here forever.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I've had several siblings who also moved back to the state of Maine and several who have wanted to and haven't been able to because of jobs. And it does seem true that, especially with the raising of children, that there is something about Maine that feels safe and nurturing and kind of creating community that I agree with you that it's very unique to our locale. I don't want to take anything away from other places that also have a sense of home but we definitely have that here. For people who are moving back to the state or moving to the state, are there challenges that you're seeing as they try to integrate this new life?
Heather Shields: I think the first challenge is actually finding a place to land. We're seeing that in this real estate market it's tough because people are trying to come back and people are trying to move here and start a fresh and there's just not a lot for them to, to find in terms of housing stock. So I think that's the first challenge. I think the second challenge is, obviously, that our winters are tough. January and February are not my favorite but if they could be like last winter, I'd be fine with it. I think that if you can get through the winter here then you're golden. I mean the rest of it is gravy. COVID has made it challenging for people to integrate and understand what we're really about.
Heather Shields: But obviously, with everything changing and opening up, that will be different. I think if someone were moving to Yarmouth or Falmouth or Cape Elizabeth or Cumberland or the surrounding suburbs of Portland without having that school connection, without having the kids in school, that's been a tough way to get to know people. That's all shifting and it feels like it'll be a little easier for those people trying to integrate again. But I think the first thing is trying to find them a place to live. That's the largest challenge that we're facing.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Heather, for people who would like to connect with you about finding a place to live, how can they find you?
Heather Shields: There's a couple of ways to find me. I work for legacy properties, Legacy Properties Sotheby's International Realty in Portland. I'm on Instagram. I'm on Facebook. I am easily reachable by email. I have a website www.heathershieldsmaine.com and then Heather Shields Realtor Maine on Instagram and Facebook. I'm out there. It's easy to find me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And for those who are interested in seeing some of the beautiful work by Eric Hopkins, they can actually go to the Portland Art Gallery and the Portland Art Gallery website. And oftentimes at the openings that we have in person, Eric shows up himself. He's actually known to take his shoes off and walk amongst the crowd. He's a wonderful man. As many people I've met from North Haven are. I've been speaking with Heather Shields who is really a good friend and someone I've enjoyed getting to know over the years with our daughters doing things together. She is a real estate professional originally from North Haven but now currently living in Portland. Heather, thank you so much for being with me today on Radio Maine.
Heather Shields: Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. It was such a pleasure.