Freeport non-profit plants hope in local teens

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FREEPORT — Organizers of Seeds of Independence, a non-profit organization that helps at-risk youth get back on track, threw a party last week to introduce themselves to the public and raise money for the organization’s future.

Willo Wright, program director of Seeds of Independence, said within the past year the organization has gained non-profit status and includes programs such as Jumpstart, Rebound, Long Creek to Rebound, parenting classes, and Dominican Republic work trips. She and her husband, Tom Wright, who is the president, founded the organization together.

The Jumpstart program started in Kennebunkport about 16 years ago, Willo Wright said, and was introduced in Freeport in 1997. It’s a program that pairs first-time juvenile offenders with mentors for an eight-week decision-making workshop. Wright said she was hired as the program director of Jumpstart, and ran the program using Juvenile Justice Assistance grants and private contributions, but wanted to do more for kids leaving the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

“Education is the primary component of Seeds of Independence,” Wright said. “These kids want to succeed, they want their independence, and we want to help them get there.”

Police Department Lt. Susan Nourse is a board member and a facilitator in the Jumpstart program. She said the Jumpstart program helps teens with their decision making skills and the Rebound program helps teens learn life skills – how to stay in school, how to find a job, how to live independently.

“That is the crux of the program,” Nourse said. “Teens want their independence, and want to be productive members of society. Through positive adult connections, we try to redirect them to lead a healthy life.”

Rebound is in its eighth year, and is a 12-week mentor program designed to help students acclimate to society after having been convicted of a crime or are repeat offenders.  A Long Creek to Rebound class allows mentors to meet and work with teens in Long Creek Youth Development Center before they are released, and then continues the relationship through the Rebound program.

In addition to the Jumpstart and Rebound programs, Write said the work study to the Dominican Republic is also very successful. The trip to La Romana is something the Wrights have been doing independently since 1999.

They take about 12 students and 15 mentors, along with doctors and nurses to work at a hospital. They also travel to the bateys, or villages in the sugar cane fields, and treat sick villagers. Most of the villagers are Haitians, she said, and are very poor.

“These people have no electricity, no running water, and live among sickness and parasites,” Wright said. “The teens see how they can help others, they experience a completely different world, and it truly becomes life-changing for them. Some of them continue on to study medicine or public health.”

The teen parenting program does not have as much participation, Wright said, as it is not mandated like Jumpstart and Rebound. But, she said they have ideas on how to improve the educational piece for teen parents in the future.

The Seeds of Independence board started in June of 2008 with 11 people. There are now five board members and 10 trustees. The members are from South Portland, Pownal, Freeport, and Portland. Wright said there are about 20 mentors involved and the programs continue year round.

“As a mentor, it is good to do something with the student like eat a meal together or see a movie,” she said. “It is important to just be with them outside the weekly classes.”

Vice President Fred Palmer of Freeport said the program’s long-range goal is to expand to other areas and be a resource for other communities to start their own programs.

“As a result of working with these kids, you can identify their specific needs, and what stumbling blocks they can’t get past,” he said. “The help ranges from an encouraging 7 a.m. phone call, to how to write a resume or tips on how to interview for a job.”

Palmer said he has mentored nearly 10 teens. If they don’t get the help they need, he said, they will just perpetuate the problem.

“Without encouragement, they could end up back in jail, without an education, without the skills they need to succeed,” he said. “This mentoring program gives kids the strength to graduate and be successful in life.”

Wright said the organization will expand it’s Internet presence and pool resources to create links to other programs to help at-risk youth.

“We are trying to meet the needs of the students that are not being met,” she said. “There are other great organizations out there and if we can all work together, we can reach more teens.”

While Wright said they are working on a shoestring budget, the organization is looking for grants so the teens can participate in dance lessons, art classes, camps, and driver’s education. She said they need to experience what other teens have, but it takes time, money and mentors.

Nourse said the non-profit is always looking for volunteers, people who can provide meeting space, who can drive teens to an appointment, or mentor.

She said there is a low recidivism rate with the Jumpstart program, but the dropout rate is still too high.

Wright said one in four students drop out of high school.

“That means in Freeport, Topsham and Brunswick high schools, 500 kids are not in graduating,” Wright said. “Education is vital to us. We want these kids to grow independently through relationships.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or