BRUNSWICK — Perryman Village sits next to Regal Cinemas at Cook’s Corner, set back from Gurnet Road by Perryman Drive, which is only 2/10 of a mile long.
But for some residents, the mental distance from Perryman to the town of Brunswick can feel much farther.
The 50-unit public housing development is home to 47 adults and 86 children. It is one of two public housing projects available to families in Brunswick.
Ellen Ayer-Dicus, a mother of two, said on a recent Sunday that Perryman kids are often stigmatized for where they live, both by other children at school and by teachers.
They are labeled as “trouble-makers,” she said, the offspring of parents who “have a hard time getting jobs.”
She said it’s time for that stigma to end.
“Many of these kids are athletes and either attend college or join the military,” she said. Standing outside her home at 17 Perryman on May 15, she pointed to surrounding houses: her neighbor’s daughter is in nursing school at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, she said; a boy across the street joined the Marines.
As for the young kids coming up, they’re channeling their energy into a growing list of activities at Perryman. From free martial arts classes twice a week, to Thursday art sessions with the nonprofit ArtVan, parents like Ayer-Dicus are making sure their kids’ days do not end when school does.
“It takes forever for the best apple to shine,” she said. “And I think (that) is what we are trying; we are trying to shine.”
Gerald Giggey once worked security at a Chuck Norris event in Houston, Texas. Now, he teaches kids Norris’ style of martial arts, called “Chun Kuk Do,” twice a week at the Perryman Village Community Center.
Giggey said he turned to the fighting style about a decade ago after having trouble with his heart. It helped him get in shape and turn his life around, he said.
He believes martial arts has the power to change kids’ lives like it did his.
“I know it can work,” he said.
On Wednesday, May 11, eight children lined up on a floor mat across from Giggey. He led them through some starting moves, and then directed them to run four laps around the room.
“Yes sir,” they yelled in unison, counting off each rotation: “one sir, two sir, three sir, four sir.”
“What are the seven magical phrases?” he asked them.
“Yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am, please, thank you, you’re welcome,” they shouted back.
“What are the four focus words?,” he asked them.
“Eyes, ears, mind, body,” they answered.
Parents sat at the side of the room watching their children run, punch and kick. Aaron Briere said he comes every Wednesday and Friday to watch his kids, Aaron Jr. and Alaynna. He works early morning shifts at Wal-Mart so he can be home when they return from school.
When his kids asked him about the Chun Kuk Do classes, he told them, “If you’re going to do it, you’re going to be at home practicing,” he recalled. As incentive, he promised that if they were truly “dedicated,” he would start taking classes as well.
“So they got extremely dedicated,” he said. Now, he takes Giggey’s 5 p.m. adult classes after his kids are finished.
Briere also grew up at Perryman. He pointed to a roof tile on the ceiling painted with a character from the animated TV show “Dragon Ball-Z.”
“I painted that as a kid,” he said before leaving to suit up for his class.
A few days later, the part-time dojo had been swept clean and turned into a dining room. Tables were set up for an end-of-year barbecue at Perryman, hosted by the School Department.
Chelsey Alexander sat with two of her daughters, Brooklyn, 6, and Lizzie, 9. Over hot dogs, carrots, dip, and pasta salad, they debriefed the week’s martial arts classes.
Brooklyn said the main reason she’s learning karate is “to protect my mom.” Her mother, Chelsey, is the most important Chelsey in her life; the other is a stuffed rabbit, also named Chelsey, who made an appearance at the dinner later in the evening.
She raved to Chelsey, her mother, about Mr. Ciembroniewicz, her principal at Coffin Elementary School.
“He lets other people say the Cub Awards for him,” she said, referencing the school’s good behavior awards.
“He lets children go up to his office,” she said.
“Things must be changing,” her mother said. “When I was in school, going to the principal’s office was a bad thing.”
Outside, William Colburn, 9, helped Food Services Director Scott Smith on the grill. According to Colburn, the two cooked up 50 hamburgers and 20 hot dogs.
The food was donated by the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, and then cooked by eight school department volunteers, with help from William.
After the meal, kids spilled out of the community center into the cul-de-sac to play, stopping to watch Scott Smith douse the grill in a dramatic puff of smoke.
“It’s good they’re finally recognizing we have a little community here,” Chelsey Alexander said, as her two daughters tore out to join the swarming pack of kids.
Alexander said she feels her address often leads people to jump to conclusions about her and her children.
She and her friend, Ellen Ayer-Dicus, sat outside after the barbecue Sunday and discussed the baggage the Perryman name can carry.
Ayer-Dicus said she had changed her address on job applications before, believing it might hurt her chances of being hired. Alexander spoke of canceled dates after a man found out where she lived.
A couple years ago, she said, she was planning a birthday party for her middle daughter, Lizzie, telling her to invite her friends from school. One by one, Lizzie’s friends came back to her, telling the young Lizzie that their parents didn’t want them going to Perryman Drive.
“(They) judge before coming in here and meeting these kids,” Ayer-Dicus said.
Another week was coming to an end, which, for some kids at Perryman Drive, means the ArtVan comes.
ArtVan is a mobile arts therapy organization whose mission is to bring art and creative learning to kids that may not have access to it.
On Thursday, May 19, ArtVan staffer Sarah Mays brought cotton balls and colorful fabric for kids to make figures out of.
“You can make anything you want,” she said. “Maybe something you’d like to take on a trip with you.”
Ayer-Dicus’ youngest daughter, Laila, 8, made ghosts out of cloth patterned with ivy leaves.
She thought about making an octopus, and then thought better of it. “They have sharp beaks under them,” she said. “They spray out dark, and I don’t like dark.”
About 30 minutes into the crafting session, Chelsey Alexander and her two daughters returned from an errand to Wal-Mart. The girls ran to join their friends.
“We are never going to miss ArtVan,” Brooklyn proclaimed, seizing a roll of fabric.
After an hour, they stopped to have snacks, and ArtVan’s Sarah Mays led them through a group “share” to explain their work.
When it was over, Chelsey Alexander walked across the cul-de-sac to pick up her daughters. They were hyped up, running around with their fabric creatures.
Alexander works day shifts at the nearby KFC while her daughters Brooklyn, Lizzie and Gabi are in school. Her word is law: when she tells a screaming Brooklyn chasing a boy on a bike to “chill,” she does.
She says her hope is for her girls to be “a positive impact on the community.”
Lizzie, 9, ran back to her mother after waving off the ArtVan team.
“Let me tell you what I am,” she said. “I’m kind, I dress wild, I like to play, I like other people, and I hope my mom gets her car fixed.”
Alexander rolled her eyes, and then corralled the two girls for dinner. They had to be ready for karate the next day.
Chelsey Alexander, with her daughters Brooklyn, 6, on her lap, and Lizzie, 9, behind her at a Brunswick School Department barbecue at the Perryman Community Center on May 15: “It’s good they’re finally recognizing we have a little community here.”
Kids participate in Gerald Giggey’s twice-a-week free martial arts class at the Perryman Community Center in Brunswick.
William Colburn, 9, at the grill after cooking 50 hamburgers and 20 hot dogs at a Brunswick School Department barbecue May 15 in Perryman Village.
Laila Ayer-Dicus, 8, shows off a fabric ghost she made with the nonprofit ArtVan May 19 at Perryman Village in Brunswick.