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Ultimate 'Survivor' motivates Portland life-skills learners

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Ultimate 'Survivor' motivates Portland life-skills learners

PORTLAND — Some city residents who are learning new skills to survive will get tips on Tuesday from one of the country's most famous "survivors."

South Portland resident Bob Crowley, who won the 2008 season of reality-TV show "Survivor," will deliver a motivational talk to about two dozen participants in Tools for Life, a life-skills development program run by The Salvation Army in Portland.

Crowley won $1.1 million after other contestants were eliminated in "Survivor: Gabon." He was 57, the oldest winner in the history of the show.

In an interview, Crowley said he sees some parallels between his survival experience and that of the Tools for Life participants, many of whom have dealt with poverty, addiction or the language difficulties and other challenges of being new U.S. residents.

"I can see a similarity. I was on my own, and had to overcome one obstacle after another, which is basically what is happening for these folks," he said. "The difference is the show was just a game."

Tools for Life offers a series of free seven- and 11-week courses that teach adults practical skills such as job hunting, financial planning and meal planning. Some classes help participants shop for clothes they can wear on job interviews; one class even helped participants improve their table manners.

A recent Tools for Life class taught participants how to plan and shop for a week's worth of groceries for under $50, and was led by a guest chef from Frog & Turtle, a Westbrook gastro pub.

Participants meet for classes either at The Salvation Army offices on Cumberland Avenue, or at Florence House, the Preble Street shelter for homeless women.

"This is all about having the tools to live productive, independent lives," said Steve Ditmer, a major in the Salvation Army who co-leads the group's northern New England division. "But depending on where you were brought up, these skills are things you may not have been exposed to."

While Tools for Life was created several years ago and is unique to Portland, the program's practical theme is in keeping with the Salvation Army's overarching mission, according to Ditmer.

"The Salvation Army has always been about identifying needs and doing what it takes, as long as it takes, to solve the problem," he said.

Crowley said he supports that approach. Perseverance was the key to his success on "Survivor," he said.

"The other thing that helped me was simply being nice to people, and honest," he added.

But as much as he thinks his experience can help teach others, he said he also learned much from the experience of "surviving" in central Africa. And those lessons may be ones the Tools for Life participants already know.

"I realized how lucky I was to be born here," he said. "We may just think of ourselves as average Americans, but we're all incredibly fortunate to be here."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.