Three years ago, Lee Urban – a former lawyer and elementary school teacher – decided that he wanted to spread the joy that he feels when playing the ukulele. He saw the potential for the instrument to do good in his community. He formed the non-profit Ukuleles Heal the World and, through a common connection, found LearningWorks as an entryway in to public schools. He wanted to reach children who couldn’t necessarily afford music lessons.
Lee values the collaboration with LearningWorks because of AfterSchool's willingness to commit to a full, uninterrupted week of ukulele camp. Students meet for 50 minutes for four days in a row, and on the fifth day the camp culminates in a concert. Urban feels that this allows students to build momentum and to learn at a higher rate, as opposed to meeting just once a week - as he has done with other programs in the past. "It's been very successful," he says. How does he know? "It's this," he smiles wide, gesturing to his own joyful expression, "on their faces. That's how I know it's successful."
And it has been. Since Ukuleles Heal the World first partnered with LearningWorks, Lee Urban and his friends have taught 15 camps with LearningWorks AfterSchool - at Reiche, East End Community School, Riverton, Ocean Ave., Presumpscot and Hall School. Through this partnership, Urban has given away 100 ukuleles, tuners and cases – each student walks away with their own instrument. The kids learn to help one another and to collaborate as well as learning responsibility through taking care of their instrument. Urban says that, for him, the greatest hope is that kids walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. And that they've had fun.
And they do have fun. It’s no surprise that the children enjoy their time at camp. As Lee says, “there’s no pressure in Ukulele Land.” Urban himself is immediately kind and disarming, joking by telling the kids, “We’re not going to practice playing the instrument. We’re just going to play the same song over and over again.” But it’s the instrument itself, he insists, that brings joy. When asked what is so special about the ukulele, he says, “It looks easy to play and it is easy to play. It takes 10 minutes to learn a song. 10 years to master it."
In the future, Urban hopes to keep doing more. Raise more money, reach more kids, give away more ukuleles and expand outside of Portland. He hopes to reach kids who never would have imagined that they could play a ukulele - or own one. Through these efforts, he hopes to, in his own, small way, help to heal the world.
Photography Courtesy of Hilary Campbell.
Julie Stone began working with LearningWorks’ Youth Building Alternatives program 3 years ago, in October of 2015. She found the opportunity through Jobs For Maine’s Graduates, a non-profit that has been partnering with LearningWorks for many years. As the resident JMG specialist, Julie serves as an educator and a mentor to students, providing them with job readiness skills and educational support. In addition, she is also the YBA program’s culinary arts teacher. “I remember getting my hopes up really high that I would get the job, because it combined two of my passions- cooking and teaching.”
Julie puts these passions to great use in the classroom, where she works one-on-one with students who come in to the YBA program. Youth Building Alternatives serves teens and young adults who have struggled to find their way in the traditional education system. Of her students, Julie says, “The students are amazing! There is something refreshing about working with this group of young adults. Many of the students have overcome some of the greatest challenges and barriers, yet they continue to shine and overcome their obstacles.”
The partnership between LearningWorks and JMG gives students a unique opportunity to overcome these obstacles. With the help of teachers like Julie and the rest of the YBA staff, students receive the support of two organizations in one place. Executive Vice President of JMG, Kim Lipp notes, “JMG's longstanding partnership with LearningWorks is one of our most effective. In integrating our organization's approach, we have seen students gain the skills and confidence needed to keep taking more steps toward post-secondary education and training after they graduate from YBA."
Julie not only gives her students her own unwavering support and enthusiasm, but she enjoys bringing in community partners to engage each student’s interest as well. From chefs to local business owners, Julie is always looking to find a student’s passion and bring in talented and influential individuals to work with them and teach them ways to turn that passion in to a marketable skill.
As a teacher (and newly appointed Master JMG Specialist), one of Julie’s greatest joys is seeing her students come back after graduation to fill her in on their current successes. “It is so amazing to see students come in with so many barriers to education and work and to now see them living a full life and making something of their future.”
We were fortunate to join forces with Kelly McConnell in 2011 through a collaborative partnership between the Maine College’s of Art’s (MECA) Masters of Arts in Teaching program and our LearningWorks Afterschool program for elementary school students. Kelly is currently the Director of Art Education Outreach and an Associate Professor at MECA. Her work involves collaborative, authentic, project‐based work in schools, museums, and community and alternative settings with learners of all ages and walks of life. As a teacher, Kelly McConnell is attuned to context and believes that all learning is cumulative, and that the learning experience is part of the construction of knowledge. She draws from frameworks such as Reggio Emilia inspired learning, the Studio Habits of Mind, and the equity‐based pedagogy of Paulo Freire. Training the next generation of art teachers has been her focus in recent years. Kelly is also a painter who has exhibited work at Mayo Street Arts and Three Fish Gallery.
Through a partnership with LWAS Director Amy Pichette, we began offering fieldwork activities to MECA’s Teacher Candidates. This fieldwork uses “The Studio Habits of Mind,” developed by Harvard’s Project Zero, as a framework to engage students in the art making process. In turn, it allows MECA’s Teacher Candidates to design and implement Arts Integration lessons under Kelly’s guidance. Kelly ensures all students have access to high quality art materials, including enough supplies to use at home as they learn to develop a creative practice outside the classroom.
The program culminates in a professionally mounted public exhibition of our students’ work that community members are invited to attend in conjunction with a First Friday Art Walk in Portland.
For Kelly, “Art is a form of communication, a language that goes beyond words and the borders of speaking, reading, and writing. When taught effectively, the skills and habits of mind fostered in the art studio are lifelong tools. Through Make. Art. Think. we seek to elevate the art instruction in LearningWorks Afterschool.” She sees our partnership as a critical means of supporting children’s inherent creativity, the broader goals of creating “world citizens and 21st century learners,” and “professional enrichment for the adults who teach them.”
“LearningWorks’ philosophy is expansive. For example, as an Artist and Art Educator, I had an idea for how to augment an already proven STEM engineering focus with more hands-on Art and Design teaching, and they let me go for it. MECA’s MAT program already had strong summer fieldwork connections, but I got the go-ahead to add in a six-week grant driven Art Enrichment Program called Make.Art.Think. that runs every fall throughout seven of LearningWorks Afterschool’s sites.”
“What I like best about partnering with LearningWorks is how we serve children to be their best selves. Afterschool time should be used by kids for enriching, engaging, self-directed activities. The trick with afterschool is that it can’t be school. The kids have got to want to be there, to feel understood and to do things that are important to them. Obviously, LearningWorks does that right, because the numbers of students served keeps expanding.”
Photography Courtesy of Smith Galtney | smithgaltney.com
Julia Ridge has been tutoring LearningWorks student Francina Jordan through our English Language + Literacy program since 2011. Francina came to LearningWorks after her son encouraged her to find a tutoring program. He said, “You’re never too old to learn.” Francina, who has dyslexia, says, “I worked all my life not knowing how to read, and in recent years, I had worked at a hospital where I felt humiliated for not being able to read. I was really scared to let people know, but I wanted to learn more than anything. I had wanted to learn for a long time. I had to be strong. It takes guts to walk through the door and say, ‘I cannot read.’ I thought so many people would think I was stupid, as I have throughout my years of not reading. But, I finally decided to do it.”
Julia, Francina’s tutor, says that her experience volunteering for LearningWorks has been transformational. When she found out Francina had dyslexia, she enrolled in an intensive tutor training program designed for people working with students with dyslexia. “My experience with Francina means that I have worked with a strong and dedicated student who was and is determined to change her life by learning to read. It is inspiring to see someone so capable. Systems throughout her life had failed her. Francina and I continue to target phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and word recognition. We practice reading. She does her homework, and we progress. She is remarkable in her attendance to her needs and her willingness to do this very difficult job.”
Francina says, “LearningWorks changed my life, because I am not afraid anymore. I am more confident with reading. I have learned, and I am still learning.”
Both Francina and Julia hope that their story inspires other people to come forward for help and helps teachers see the value in patience when working with their students. As Francina says, “It takes time to do this.”
When asked about LearningWorks’ impact, Julia said, “I think LearningWorks is a wonderful, safe, welcoming resource in the community. As a volunteer, I have learned it is a place where it is not about test scores, but it is a place where you test your resolve; you test your determination in order to become empowered. It is a place where a volunteer can discover what it feels like to help make a difference in the life of someone else. And it is a place where students, no matter what age or background, can learn to believe in themselves and reach their potential. That is a win-win formula.”
Photography courtesy of Claire Houston | https://clairehouston.wordpress.com
Soon after Mohamed "Mo" Kilani arrived in Maine in May 2009, he was enrolled in our LearningWorks Afterschool program for elementary school students. When asked about that time, Mo says, "My limited English proficiency and fear of the unknown in this new country consumed my thoughts. I appreciated the second chance that my family and I received, yet I remained fearful of being the outcast. My concerns were quickly negated as the West End neighborhood welcomed my family with open and loving arms."
"With the help of LearningWorks, I was taught to embrace myself for who I truly am--as Mohamed Kilani, the refugee who brings new talent and opportunity to his new community."
Rather than going home after school, LearningWorks allowed Mo to attend English courses, interactive science labs, cooking courses, and more. When school ended in late June that year, Mo's mother was worried that he would not be practicing English with the same intensity. Fortunately, Mo was able to seamlessly transition into our summer program, which offers five weeks of extended learning opportunities that include field trips, science projects, arts learning, and more. Mo says that the summer program "provided such care, along with a loving faculty that I remain in touch with today. My summer was filled with fun activities that truly eased my transition. I remained going to LearningWorks Afterschool in fifth grade--where I was presented with the opportunity to attend the Chewonki Boys Camp the following summer. Not only did LearningWorks present the opportunity, but they also helped pay for its cost.
"I am forever thankful for having the LearningWorks community in my life. Without LearningWorks, I would not the same successful young man that I strive to be. I strongly believe that the American Dream is a valid phenomenon; my family's perseverance along with the aid we have received has made it a reality. As I begin my next chapter at Bowdoin College, I want to take a moment and appreciate all I have been blessed with. I trace my accomplishments to LearningWorks--they are the reason I was able to take on the English language. I am certain that they will continue to initiate success stories like mine for other children."
Photography Courtesy of Smith Galtney | http://smithgaltney.com/
Julie Faure is an educator with a rich background in bilingual education and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). After moving to Maine in 2016, Julie sought opportunities to teach and give back to the community. A quick internet search and conversation with LearningWorks English Language + Literacy Program staff later, and Julie was registered as a volunteer teacher.
When asked about her experience and favorite parts of volunteering at LearningWorks, Julie says, "I love working with an international community again. Our students have such diverse backgrounds and are incredibly interesting people. Underlying all those differences are the similarities and goals we all share. It is very satisfying to help them find the means of expressing their culture, humor, and intelligence. I feel the importance of my work to help my students gain a foothold in this country, access skills and abilities to earn a living, and become part of our community."
Julie's remarkable expertise and dedicated support has made a difference, not only in the lives of others, but also her personal life. Julie reflects, "LearningWorks has allowed me to meet some really great people. My students are a constant source of interest, warmth, and fun. I have learned a lot about the world, current events, and other cultures from them. Having been a foreigner in other countries, this is my chance to give back for all the support I have received."
Photography courtesy of Claire Houston | https://clairehouston.wordpress.com/
Casey Gilbert is the Executive Director of Portland Downtown, a nonprofit that supports the city's mission to be a vibrant hub for businesses, residents, and tourists. In addition to promoting major community events, Portland Downtown also partners with LearningWorks' Service Works program to engage youth making amends for minor offenses and rebuild positive connections to the community. Service Works creates meaningful opportunities for youth to give back by volunteering for a food pantry, serving a community meal, or rehabilitating public spaces by removing graffiti.
Reflecting on Portland Downtown's partnership with LearningWorks, Casey says, "LearningWorks is a treasure! In addition to English Language + Literacy and Youth Building Alternatives programs, LearningWorks provides opportunities for community service through the Service Works program. Youth engagement is key to creating well-rounded, confident young adults--and Service Works has an added benefit of helping so many local nonprofits with the addition of outstanding volunteers. Portland Downtown has been honored to partner with LearningWorks' Service Works team to remove graffiti, a program that is both award-winning and delivers results for the youth who are involved. An added bonus is a vibrant downtown, as our beautiful and historic properties are kept free of graffiti, thanks to the participants engaged in Service Works. Congratulations, LearningWorks! Here's to 50 more impactful years in Portland."
Photography courtesy of Smith Galtney | www.smithgaltney.com
Teyonda Hall was LearningWorks’ English Language + Literacy Director from 2011 to 2017, when she decided to take a leap of faith and move to her home state of Utah to start a new chapter of her life. Prior to that, she ran a LearningWorks Afterschool program at Riverton Elementary School, a special literacy project in Lewiston, and also worked as a case manager, helping children and young adults navigate challenges that were preventing them from achieving their academic goals.
During her time at LearningWorks, it became clear that Teyonda possesses an uncommon talent. She is equally at ease in the board room delivering a presentation on her programs, in the classroom where she teaches adult English Language Learners, and in the hallways of an elementary school, where students referred to her affectionately as “Miss T.” Her talents were a juggling act. Much like that picture of the Cat in the Hat standing on a ball and holding a stack of books in one hand; a rake, umbrella and goldfish bowl in the other; and a cake and cup of tea on his head, Teyonda could be found writing curriculum, whipping up a few training videos for new volunteers, accompanying donors on program site visits, recruiting hundreds of volunteer teachers and tutors, and writing reports, seemingly all at the same time on some days.
When asked about Teyonda, our Lead Classroom EL+L Teacher, Julie Faure, said, “When you meet Teyonda, what strikes you in quick succession are first her warmth, then her intelligence, and finally her fabulous sense of humor. She creates a comfort zone around students and teachers alike.
Regarding her impact, Director of Programs Jessica Moninski said, “Teyonda's career at LearningWorks has been devoted to helping people overcome barriers to pursue their dreams. For as long as I’ve known her, her personal brand has been to empower others. Most recently, Teyonda used her intelligence, fearlessness, and intuition to further this sentiment with her most daring feat yet – she developed from scratch an innovative new intensive English language and literacy program that yields unprecedented results for students. Along her journey, Teyonda has shaped this community by in the most profound way possible: she has given hundreds of people their voice.”
For six years, Teyonda was the glue that held so many of our programs together, moving seamlessly between behavioral health services, afterschool education, and adult literacy programming and connecting with colleagues over shared tales of traveling, her love of learning new languages, and more. Her creativity and generosity created opportunities for her students like community potlucks and game nights that won’t be easily replicated in her absence. During her time here, Teyonda worked with over 500 students and clients across three programs, impacting each one with her quick wit, sense of humor, passion, and dedication. As Julie so aptly put it, “Teyonda is an ambassador-at-large of the human heart.” We can’t wait to see where her talent and drive will take her next, and are grateful for all she did to shape LearningWorks in its first 50 years.
Photography courtesy of Molly Haley | www.mollyhaley.com
Constant Kabuyenge began teaching English in our English Language + Literacy program in the fall of 2016 after leaving Burundi for Portland. Constant admits that fleeing his country was a terrible experience. Leaving his family, business, properties, and his whole life was emotionally devastating, and Constant was depressed. To complicate things further, he quickly learned what so many immigrants to the U.S. discover: neither his diplomas nor work experience were recognized as he began the search for employment. Despite having a strong education and background in law, Constant found himself eligible only for low-paying, entry level positions.
He soon heard about LearningWorks’ English Language + Literacy program and began volunteering as an assistant English teacher and then lead English teacher working with other new Mainers. He saw how courageously students were fighting to learn English without complaining about their similar fates, and says: “It inspired me.”
When asked what he loves about our EL+LP program, Constant noted that “most English programs in Portland are based on “book-learning” and homework for basic and intermediate students while speaking exercises and opportunities are offered only to more advanced learners. The English program at LearningWorks is more than that, since giving students a way to practice their speech in every class, which is more efficient for a fast integration. This way of teaching has helped many students to hit the ground running when they got their work authorizations.”
He went on to say, “LearningWorks has not only offered an integration opportunity to immigrants and non-English speakers, but it has also given a space of capacity-building and self-esteem recovery to asylum seekers who had knowledge, language and will to serve their communities.
The determination and dedication of the students, the commitment of the teaching staff and the desire of the leadership to help students improve their lives better ignited in me the will to stand up, to accept my present situation and to move on. LearningWorks trusted my competence as a foreign trained person. I regained my self-esteem and self-confidence. I fought, took necessary trainings, passed required certificates, and am now working as a Qualified Medical Interpreter and as a Coach of other Medical Interpreters at Maine Medical Center.”
Constant continues to look to the future with strength and hope. He plans to go back to school for a law degree, pass the bar exam, and return to the field he loved and left behind in Burundi. Volunteers like Constant are the heart and soul of LearningWorks, and we could not offer our free community services without them. We are grateful for his time here and cheering him on as our friend, neighbor, and colleague as he continues to pursue his goals.
Derek Pierce is a visionary local leader in education. After earning a master’s in education from Harvard, he taught for several years in Los Angeles and Maine, became the principal of a school in Poland, Maine, and is now the principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland. Writer Sarah Braunstein profiled Derek in Maine Magazine in 2012, and highlighted his vision to do right by Maine kids by creating a “caring school culture that held every student to high expectations.” Since he became the principal of Casco Bay High School, Derek has been named Maine’s Principal of the Year, won a $100,000 leadership award from the Nellie Mae Foundation, and helped launch scores of local students on to postsecondary education pursuits using a highly successful expeditionary learning model.
Derek’s commitment to innovative, inclusive, and student centered learning have been a perfect match for our Service Works program at LearningWorks. Service Works offers a program called Alternatives to Suspension that gives kids in trouble at school a chance to reflect on their mistakes and make amends by performing community service projects within a restorative justice framework. The program keeps kids in school and connected rather than removing them from their community when they are struggling the most. In the Greater Portland area, Casco Bay High School has been a key partner in this project.
When we asked Derek how he first started working with us, he quipped, “I remember learning about LearningWorks because it kept winning grants that Portland Public Schools failed to get.” He went on to say, “We have used the Alternatives to Suspension program as a part of our school’s move to a discipline system based on restorative justice. When our students complete service with LearningWorks in lieu of a traditional suspension, I know their education is not stopping. It is expanding. The students have an opportunity to see the value in both serving and making amends. Participating students typically return to us more ready to contribute to our school community as well. The program has helped many participating students forge something positive when they need it most.”
Courtesy - Molly Haley Photography
Donna Galluzzo was a LearningWorks board member from 1999 to 2006. During that time, she held every position on the executive committee as our Secretary, Treasurer, Vice President, and President. Her time as a board member significantly shaped who we are today. Currently, she is the executive director of the Frannie Peabody Center in Portland.
Donna has a deep history in education, community work, and documentary studies. Fortunately for us, she happened to be in a graduate class at the Muskie School with a LearningWorks board member who recruited her to join the board while working toward her Masters in adult education and community development. Throughout her time on the board, her photography skills captured many of our graduation ceremonies, public events, and programs in action. Her generosity helped LearningWorks grow and thrive, and it made an impact on her too. She says, "I learned so much about the role and impact a community based organization has on a neighborhood, a culture, and the generations of residents it serves. I was inspired by the activist roots in LearningWorks' past, and I learned how to be a better board member and a better executive director through my experiences there."
Thinking back on how LearningWorks has made an impact on our community in its 50 years, Donna spoke about how the organization "has been a beacon to the neighborhood. It's a place that people can wander into for companionship, help, growth opportunities; it shows that the neighborhood has a heart and a strong, caring soul." Looking to the future, Donna can imagine LearningWorks building on its strong foundation and continuing to grow, partnering with other local and statewide organizations, while maintaining a special connection to the neighborhood where it all started. "As the demographics of the peninsula and our west end neighborhood change, integrating old and new residents in a way that fosters community, trust, and camaraderie" is something she - and all of us at LearningWorks - hope for.
Courtesy - Molly Haley Photography
Over twenty years ago, Wilfreid Plalum found himself in the right place at the right time. He was 20 years old, and had just arrived in Maine with his family from South Sudan. “I was playing soccer with some friends across the street from LearningWorks, when two staff people stopped over and informed us of a new program at LearningWorks called Youth Building Alternatives (YBA).”
Youth Building Alternatives provides an integrated academic and occupational skills curriculum for young people who are not enrolled in school and are also unemployed.
Wilfreid recalls, “I knew that getting my GED was very important to be successful in America so I immediately signed up!”
After spending a year at YBA, Wilfreid received his degree, which enabled him to keep going further with his education. He went on to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Maine and become deeply involved in the community. He is part of the World Affairs Council of Maine, serves as a translator for Catholic Charities, and is involved with the Camden Conference, an annual gathering in Maine which fosters discourse on world issues.
Even 22 years after landing at LearningWorks, Wilfreid is passionate about continuing his education. He’s currently preparing to go back to school for an advanced degree and hopes to teach at the college level within a few years.
Reflecting back on his experience at LearningWorks, Wilfreid is grateful that his path crossed with those two instructors while playing soccer. “I credit LearningWorks for the help and support in getting my GED and the mentoring support throughout the years. I am grateful to the staff whose work continues to shine beyond LearningWorks and into the lives of many.”
"I was looking for something meaningful to do with my year." - Karla Salamanca
Upon graduation from Portland High School in 2016, Karla Salamanca knew she eventually wanted to attend college. She decided to take a gap year to learn more about herself and be better prepared when she did enroll in college. “I was looking for something meaningful to do with my year, and I searched “AmeriCorps” online and LearningWorks’ AIMS HIGH AmeriCorps Program popped up on the screen! After reading more about it, I was convinced that becoming an AmeriCorps member was something I wanted to do during the 2016-2017 school year.”
AIMS HIGH places teams of AmeriCorps members in elementary schools to increase academic achievement and social and emotional learning through tutoring and mentoring. When members complete their service, they receive an education award that can be used toward tuition, future educational opportunities, or student loan debt.
Karla will serve 900 hours this year. She does her service at Reiche Elementary School in Portland and finds herself learning something each day about different cultures. Karla admits she was very shy when she began and credits the students for making her feel more confident. “I work with English Language Learners, and the experience has helped me grow so much over the year. I think we both have learned from each other.”
Karla wants to stick with her original plan of attending college and studying education to become a teacher. There is one slight variation, however. “Last year at this time, I never would have thought of focusing my teaching on English Language Learners. But now, I know that is what I am meant to do.” One of the students that Karla has worked with was new to America when her family recently arrived from the Congo. “She had difficulty reading and speaking English and like me, was very shy. Over the year, she has constantly improved and her literacy scores have soared. I am glad to have played a part in her improving and know that I can have an impact on others like her.”
Courtesy - Gregory Rec Photography
Liz Leddy’s resume is impressive. She’s a two time national Golden Gloves Champion; owner of her own hair styling business, and a personal trainer. Back in the mid-1990s, this kind of success and stability was something that seemed far beyond Liz’s reach. After dropping out of high school, Liz found herself homeless. She struggled with substance abuse and fell into an abusive relationship. Throughout all of this, she would ask herself, “How am I going to move forward with my life?” A friend who attended LearningWorks’ Youth Building Alternatives program (YBA) encouraged her to check it out. Liz says YBA played a big part in helping her move forward. “They immediately knew how to approach and work with kids in my position. They told me that I could succeed in life, but you need to have the tools, and they provided that for me.”
Our YBA program serves students who have dropped out of high school and provides them with academic and vocational instruction so they too will have the tools to realize their potential. Twenty years later, LearningWorks is still a part of Liz’s life. “I love to come back each year and visit with the new group of students! Even though I have overcome a lot, there will always be a disconnect that I have with many people in the community. But when I see the new students, I immediately see myself in them. I let them know that they need to accept responsibility and learn to accept their past; it is part of who they are. You cannot simply amputate a traumatic experience from your life. And the kids that I speak with now at YBA have the same hopes and dreams that I had and I’m there to tell them to not give up. It is ironic that as even though I am a boxer one of the most important lessons I learned while at YBA, that I share with the students, is that you don’t have to fight every fight that presents itself to you.”
Liz’s transformational story inspires our current students and has struck a nerve in the wider community as well. She presented her journey at TEDxSMCC in a talk entitled “Shadow Boxing in the Dark” and has been profiled in a documentary feature, “The Liz Leddy Story.”
Liz continues to thrive. This June, she’ll be seeking her third National Golden Gloves title and continues to work as a personal trainer at the Portland Boxing Club run her own business. “Each day presents a new opportunity.”
Courtesy - Angie Devenney Photography
“LearningWorks is more than learning. I’ve had many new experiences as a student and enjoy my teachers and classmates.” - Othniel Emelo
Othniel became a student in our English Language & Literacy Program in September 2016, shortly after arriving in Portland from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His uncle told him that there was a place nearby where he could learn English for free, and since then, Othniel has dedicated himself to becoming proficient in speaking and comprehending English. He currently takes classes at LearningWorks twice a week and works with one of our volunteer tutors twice a week.
Othniel’s goals are to attend college, study law enforcement, and ultimately: become a police officer. “LearningWorks is helping me improve my English which will make it possible for me to go to college. I know that my speaking and writing need to be stronger, and I am improving here! The teachers do everything possible to make sure we understand and make us feel comfortable when we are speaking.”
Othniel’s English has improved so much since September that he is now employed, working at Burlington Coat Factory! His friendly personality and bright smile have made him a favorite among students, staff and volunteers.
Courtesy - Sofia Aldinio Photo & Video
"LearningWorks gave me a chance to get out in the community and do something positive." PJ Sanguedolce
PJ was first introduced to LearningWorks in 2014 by the staff at Long Creek Youth Development Center (LCYDC). He was part of a group of young men who had graduated from high school while at LCYDC and were in need of constructive opportunities in the community before leaving. PJ and other youth like him often use this time to participate in LearningWorks Service Works Program as a means to gain additional work experience and reintegrate back into the community.
Service Works offers juvenile offenders the opportunity to make amends for infractions through community service, restorative justice dialogue, and self-reflection. Program participants spend time writing about their experiences, setting goals for the future, and giving back to the community through opportunities like volunteering for a homeless shelter or food pantry, serving a community meal, or rehabilitating a public space.
Reflecting back on his experience, PJ says what means the most to him are the relationships he formed with local business owners and others in the community. "One of my community service jobs was to remove graffiti from buildings as part of the Service Works program." PJ's natural, outgoing demeanor was helpful in his ability to engage with business owners; at each worksite, he introduced himself with a smile and a handshake. "I acquired new technical skills while participating in Service Works and learned a lot about area nonprofits and businesses in my community."
Young people like PJ who have run-ins with the law often feel alienated from their communities; having the opportunity to experience a sense of belonging and connection through meaningful work reduces recidivism rates and helps set youth on a path toward a brighter future.
Since participating in our Service Works program, PJ has remained connected to his community, and his days in the corrections system are behind him. Youth engaged with the Service Works program have a success rate of 97% of not becoming re-involved in the juvenile justice system.
PJ is currently working in Biddeford and hopes to start a new job in construction this spring. "I think it is important for me to do my best day by day and to stay busy and keep working."
Courtesy - Angie Devenney Photography
"If not for YBA, I would probably be at home doing nothing with my life." - Grace Wiley
It has been a busy and inspiring past couple of weeks for Grace Wiley, a current student in LearningWorks' Youth Building Alternatives Program. A talented artist, Grace attended the opening reception of Regional High School Art Show at Casco Bay Artisans Fine Art Gallery in Portland where she has one of her paintings on exhibit. One week later, Grace and one of her YBA classmates, Brittney, traveled to Riding to the Top Therapeutic Riding Center in Windham to make a donation. "One of the things I have learned at LearningWorks since I began last October, is how important it is to help others in our community."
Just one year ago, activities like these did not appear to be part of Grace's future. After dropping out of high school in 2015 Grace knew that she had to take charge and make changes with her life. She had been bullied in school but also accepted some responsibility for her past and wanted to take charge of her future. She looked up "Alternative Schools" on the internet and LearningWorks popped up. "When I first got to YBA, I couldn't make eye contact at first because I always felt people were judging me. But the teachers and students work together and I quickly learned that this place is like a family."
Grace's goals for the future include completing her High School Equivalency Exam and then enrolling at Southern Maine Community College in the fall to study health science and achieve her goal of becoming a physical therapist. She also wants to come back and visit YBA often and speak to future students. "YBA challenges me to do things that I normally wouldn't think I could do. I have a different mindset about life now and I want to let other kids know that they can accomplish their goals."
Courtesy - Sofia Aldinio Photo & Video
“Youth Building Alternatives gave me a second chance.”
Joe Dubail, a current student in our Youth Building Alternatives (YBA) program, is making the most of opportunities that eluded him in high school. “I stopped going to high school last year when I was a senior. I was not motivated, mostly because I was having a difficult time in class, and I didn’t have goals for my future.”
Joe first heard of LearningWorks from a friend who had graduated from YBA, a program that provides HiSET (formerly GED) preparation and vocational skills training for young men and women who have dropped out of high school. Joe’s first experience at YBA was Mental Toughness Week, a part of YBA that is designed to help students begin their journey. “It was interesting because all of the activities are designed to get you out of your comfort zone and be able to get to know your classmates. I think it brought us all together in a way that I had not experienced in school before.”
"LearningWorks plays a key role in finding and training volunteers like me and matching us up with students like Fatima who we can help. Thanks to LearningWorks, I have found meaningful volunteer work, and Fatima has been able to advance her career." - Andy Meyer, Residential Program Manager, Efficiency Maine
When Fatima Penayo arrived in Maine in the summer of 2016 from Paraguay, she went from room to room in her apartment and labeled all of her belongings with their English names. As the mother of a four year old, she knew learning English would be the difference between being involved in her four year old daughter's education and not having a voice. She knew it would be the most important factor in returning to her career as a nurse. So she started learning the words one by one: book, teaspoon, cup.
Then, she heard about LearningWorks' free English Language & Literacy program from her husband Carlo. When she arrived in our classroom, she was immediately enrolled in two evening classes each week with a group of fellow language learners and matched with tutor Andy Meyer for additional one-on-one practice. Andy says, "When she first arrived, our conversations were primarily phrases like, 'Hello, my name is Fatmia.' They role played conversations she'd need for daily living, did vocabulary drills, practiced pronunciation, and more.
Now, six months later, Fatima is functionally fluent in English in addition to her native Spanish and Guarani. She left her job in a seafood processing plant and now works at an assisted living facility in her chosen field, speaking English exclusively. Though she has a full time job, is raising her daughter, and taking two classes a week, she still makes time to meet with Andy on evenings and weekends to advance her English. Andy, in turn, is inspired by her drive to learn and her career aspirations.
Maybe you've seen them around. Like the hundreds of additional students and volunteers we reach through this program, they can be found on nights and weekends at a coffee shop, the library, or a community center - giving back to the community through volunteering, learning a new language, and realizing their potential.
Courtesy - Sofia Aldinio Photo & Video
"Before I found YBA, I had given up on my goals." - Grace Van Etten
Grace Van Etten is a graduate of LearningWorks' Youth Building Alternatives (YBA) program, which provides alternative education, HiSET preparation, and job, life, and leadership skills for unemployed youth who have dropped out of high school.
When Grace started YBA, she didn't think college was an option for her. She struggled with anxiety, and wasn't hopeful about her future. But her time at Learning Works impacted her life more than she expected. She says, "Everything that I went through with my classmates and the staff strengthened me to become a person I am proud to be."
For Grace, the best part of YBA was the staff. "There is an incredible sense of support and care that they have for each student. Once they help you find your dream, they will stop at nothing to help you reach your goals. I owe them so much, I can never thank them enough for the transformation they helped me through."
We are proud to report that Grace is currently enrolled at SMCC majoring in Early Childhood Education. When asked about her experience as a college student, Grace said, "I am back on track with my education and work hard to do my best every day. I have already had so many amazing learning experiences, and my passion for guiding young children grows every day."
Her next goal? A Bachelor's degree and her very own classroom to run.
We were honored to work with Grace and nurture her talent and her dreams through our innovative programming. YBA serves 70 students like Grace each year - stay tuned to our 50 Stories Project to hear more stories about our current and former YBA students.
Courtesy - Sofia Aldinio Photo & Video
“LearningWorks is filling a really important niche in Portland.” – Emily Thielmann
West End resident Emily Thielmann has been a policy associate at the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine since 2012. Her work is centered around the Institute’s Youth & Community Engagement (YCE) program, which works with individuals and communities to leverage their leadership and build their skills, resources, and capacity.
She started her career at LearningWorks as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in the summer of 2009, coordinating volunteers and starting a mentoring program for adult English Language Leaners and Youth Building Alternatives students. Over time, she went on to coordinate our former Study Center and teach in our LearningWorks Afterschool and Youth Building Alternatives program.
When asked about her tenure at LearningWorks, Emily says, “LearningWorks let me put into practice the way I wanted to live in the world. Not only did I get to spend my time building deep relationships and constantly learning new things, but I was giving back to my community – and not just my community, but to my neighborhood. It really deepened my connection to this community and my desire to keep fighting to make sure everyone gets to fulfill their right to get a great education. Nothing brings me joy more than bumping into students who used to come to the Study Center as middle schoolers and hearing about their jobs or the classes they are taking in college.”
Photography courtesy of Claire Houston: www.clairehouston.wordpress.com
Susan Abt is one of the many individual donors who make our free services for the community possible.
She moved to Portland from Chicago 12 years ago after a career working as a buyer for an independent bookstore. She heard about LearningWorks while volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House, where LearningWorks students were often present doing community service. She was immediately impressed with how the students were using their energy and time in a positive manner and sensed that LearningWorks was having a positive impact on them at a critical time in their lives.
Susan supports our work for many reasons. She says, “It imbues me with a feeling of relief to know that there is support available for young people who may not have succeeded in the education system or who have had run-ins with the law. LearningWorks’ services are available to people of all colors, nationalities, and religions. In this welcoming environment, education is the gateway to success.”
Photography courtesy of Claire Houston: https://clairehouston.wordpress.com
"At LearningWorks, I am privileged to help young students begin to reveal their potential as creative problem solvers." - David Tucker
Texas Instruments employee David Tucker volunteers in our LearningWorks Afterschool (LWAS) program two afternoons each month. LWAS provides elementary school students in Portland, Biddeford, and Waterboro with free enrichment programming designed to help every student succeed in school. Our LWAS programs currently focus on Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education. While volunteering, David has helped students build remote control cars and door bells and learn about the solar system while exploring how planets orbit the sun. What David likes best about working with our LWAS students is seeing their enthusiasm for learning about electronics. "It is amazing to see them resolve tricky problems and use their creativity."
As a professional in a STEM career, David is able to share engineering principles and help students find their own way to solve problems, like creating their own trial and error assembly lines where they troubleshoot problems in their projects by determining different levels of functionality in the parts they use.
David is one of the hundreds of volunteers who make LearningWorks programs possible each year. Thank you David!
Photography Courtesy of Claire Houston, https://clairehouston.wordpress.com/
Arnaud arrived in Portland last year from Congo after being forced to separate from his wife and children because of political unrest. Though he speaks several native languages and French, Arnaud is currently a student in our free English Language & Literacy program. Each week, he receives six hours of intensive instruction from LearningWorks staff and volunteers to master the English language, learn about cultural norms and U.S. history, and prepare to enter the workforce.
Despite having degrees in both Chemistry and Petroleum Engineering and a prior career with Halliburton, Arnaud is currently unable to work in Maine. But he’s only a language away from reuniting his family and reestablishing a career. With LearningWorks’ help, he’ll continue to receive intensive instruction in the English language and American culture, enter the workforce, and achieve his dream of being able to provide a good life for his wife and three children.
When asked about how LearningWorks is having an impact on his life, Arnaud expressed his gratitude for our teachers’ ability to meet him where he is and the fellowship of new friends as he makes his way in a new country. “I really enjoy the enrichment activities and the way American culture is incorporated into the classes. This is important information for me to have. My class is awesome!”
Photography courtesy of Cheryl Greaney
"I think reading is a critical base for many things. The more you read, the better writer you become, and for performance, storytelling is key." -Missouri Alice Williams
When Missouri was a kindergartner at Reiche Elementary, she participated in a LearningWorks summer Story Camp for six weeks. Both of Missouri's parents are professional writers, and books and reading were a big part of her everyday life. However, she struggled with comprehension. Being able to participate in one of our free literacy programs helped her get the best possible start in school.
Now, at the age of 23, she considers herself a lifelong reader and writer, and has had her poetry published professionally. She is also a singer and performer, and her current goal is to become a music educator.
Photography courtesy of Claire Houston
This picture of Missouri at our summer Story Camp is from an old Portland Press Herald article published in 2000 that we found in the attic of our building on Brackett Street!