By Trish Reske, Contributing Writer
Grafton – Whether it was fighting fires or cultivating crops, Kenneth Dion of North Grafton often was found at the scene, helping people in need. Dion retired in March after nearly 29 years of dedicated service with the Worcester Fire Department. But he will be continuing with his full-time job as operations director at the Grafton-based Community Harvest Project, a nonprofit organization that brings volunteers together to grow and distribute fresh fruits and vegetables for hunger relief.
Dion has called North Grafton home since the 1970s, when he moved there from Worcester with his parents. He is married to Jody Dion, and the couple has four grown children, Matt (24), Justin (22), McKenzie (20) and Jordan (17).
As a firefighter with Worcester’s Rescue 1, the Heavy Rescue unit, Dion specialized in structural fires, car accidents with entrapment, or any fire that requires high-angle, heavy firefighting equipment. In 2012, Dion was honored as Massachusetts Firefighter of the Year for his acts of heroism in a 2011 structural fire in Worcester, where his team rescued fellow firefighter Brian Carroll from a collapsed building, and valiantly tried to save fellow firefighter Jon D. Davies Sr., who perished in the fire. Dion also was recognized for pulling two other fellow firefighters to safety who were against a wall as the rear half of the structure collapsed without warning.
“In the moment, it was what I’d been trained for,” Dion said. “We saw something, and were in the right place at the right time. The thing that was different was that these were guys I have worked with, guys I’ve had experiences with.”
Dion said he will never forget that night. Still, he said, he “loves going to work” as a firefighter. “It’s a very rewarding career,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of great people.”
It takes a unique individual to be equally comfortable being a firefighter as a farmer, but Dion sees his two main careers as complementary. As he retires from his service as a firefighter, Dion looks forward to nurturing and growing the work of Community Harvest Project.
“As a firefighter, you’re in the business of helping people,” he said. “And Community Harvest Project, where we donate the majority of our food to hunger relief, that’s where the two tie together. We not only help people in their need for fresh produce for their hunger pains, but we also provide them with the opportunity to eat healthy to improve their life, which hopefully will improve their overall living situation.”
The nonprofit organization began in the 1970s, when a Hopkinton couple, Bill and Rose Abbott decided to donate surplus vegetables from their garden to local hunger relief organizations. Their efforts grew and thrived, and in 2014, Community Harvest Project, with farms in North Grafton and Harvard, donated 1.1 million servings of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables to the Worcester County Food Bank’s network to feed the hungry, with the help of nearly 10,000 volunteers. They expect to increase their donations in 2015, as they expand operations at the Harvard farm.
Dion became involved as a volunteer at the Grafton farm in 2002, and was the organization’s first paid employee in 2004. He’s seen a lot of growth during that time. A self-proclaimed “people person” and “outdoors guy,” Dion enjoys interacting with the volunteers and employees at the farm, as well as solving the long-term and day-to-day challenges of farm operations.
“I like the challenge of running a farm in New England,” he said. “This winter is a great example of that. I like the uncertainty of the weather, the challenge of growing the produce, and I really like the challenge of working with all the variety of people who come together to make this thing happen.”
Dion’s family has spent a lot of hours at the farm as well. The Dions are also involved with community service projects through their church, Faith Community Church of Hopkinton. Dion leads boys’ Senior High School Bible Study, and he and his wife Jody work with young couples and individuals to help them with money management and personal finance education. He was also involved the Boy Scouts and was a soccer coach as his kids were growing up.
Dion says raising their kids in North Grafton has been a positive experience, and the couple is very comfortable in the community.
“I really like Grafton,” he said. “We have the best of both worlds. It’s rural, so you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, yet in 10 minutes I can be in Worcester.”
Dion feels strongly that he is no different than anyone else when it comes to helping people in need. One only needs to look for an opportunity to serve, no matter how small.
“Don’t feel like, ‘It’s only a little thing, so I’m not going to do it,’” he said. “One small act can change the whole community. I’ve seen it time and time again – whether in the Fire Department, at Community Harvest Project, in Scouting, in church, or any other place. One person making one decision to do one thing at a point in time can make a huge impact down the road.”