Portland organization celebrates 50 years of helping those on the margins

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PORTLAND — LearningWorks, which started out as a grassroots neighborhood advocacy group 50 years ago, has grown into an organization dedicated to helping young people on the margins reach their full potential.

It offers five distinct programs, most of which center around youth and offer a helping hand to those for whom traditional educational programs just don’t work.

As the organization celebrates the half-century mark with a variety of special events, Executive Director Heather Davis said LearningWorks will continue to focus on “on what we do best, which is to reach students that no one else can reach.”

“Our blend of academic, youth development and behavioral health expertise makes it possible for us to bring our students and clients from a place of struggle and hopelessness to a graduation stage, to the workforce, and into the community,” she added.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who was the director of LearningWorks for nearly 20 years, called the organization “a tremendous asset.”

Today LearningWorks serves more than 3,000 people across southern Maine. Most of the funding for the nonprofit comes from federal grants, according to Davis. But, LearningWorks also relies on the support of many local foundations and individual donors as well.

Davis said LearningWorks has been successful for so long because it’s “always been responsive to community needs. Our programs strike a nerve and make a difference for people in a really tangible way.”

“The most important factor,” she added, “is our hard-working staff. They are the people who provide mentorship, instruction, consistency, resources and empowerment to our students day in and day out.”

Will Kilbreth, chairman of the LearningWorks board agreed, saying, “The strength of our programs is in our staff and volunteers, who work incredibly hard to reduce barriers for individuals who fall outside traditional educational structures.”

All of LearingWorks’ programs are free, which Davis said is a key factor for the participants.

The programs include an after-school initiative for elementary school students that provides science, technology, engineering and math-based education, arts enrichment, healthy snacks and more.

LearningWorks also offers English language and literacy classes to new Mainers, Davis said, which helps students to “achieve fluency more quickly” and become workforce ready.

The organization also runs the local YouthBuild program, which provides students between 16 and 24 with both “rigorous academic instruction and training in construction skills,” according to Davis.

Soni Waterman, director of the YouthBuild program, said it’s a great alternative for kids for whom a traditional high school curriculum simply wasn’t right.

“A lot of these kids are hands-on learners, who are more about doing than listening. These kids just learn differently and also test poorly,” Waterman said, which can often make school a frustrating place.

With YouthBuild, she said, “We give them an avenue to be successful and to realize their dreams.”

Davis said, “We believe that all Mainers should have the opportunity to realize their potential and the ability to prosper. Unfortunately, not all of the traditional education and career pathways that exist meet the needs of the people we work with.

“There are significant numbers of youth who have dropped out of high school, incarcerated youth, new Mainers who want to learn and build their lives in our state, and kids struggling to keep up with their peers in elementary school. These people need innovative, flexible, customized education opportunities.”

More importantly, “our programs work,” Davis said.

It certainly did for Grace Van Etten, who’s now majoring in early childhood education at the Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

“Before I found YouthBuild, I had given up on my goals,” Van Etten said. Now, “I am back on track with my education and work hard to do my best every day. My passion for guiding young children grows every day.”

Another success story is Arnaud-Davy Mambanza who came to Maine from the Congo last year and is enrolled in the English language classes at LearningWorks.

“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,” he said.

For Strimling the former director, it’s these stories of success and triumph that show just why LearningWorks is so important.

“It will always have a piece of my heart,” he said. “I certainly hope there will be another 50 years.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

The staff at LearningWorks includes, from left, Heather Davis, the executive director; Juliet Stone, the Jobs for Maine Graduates specialist; and vocational teacher Dave Connor.

New to Maine and the English language, going clockwise, are Antonio Miguel Ngungia, Vamala Olimpio and Abdiflatah Saad Djarma. At the end of the table is their teacher, Constant Kabuyenge.

LearningWorks is located at 181 Brackett St. on Portland’s West End.

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  • Govt2wasteful

    It sounds like this organization does some good work for needy children, but the taxpayers deserve to khow much do they spend each year on overhead to cover all of the staff salaries and benefits. In light of the grants they receive, and the heavy political players involved with this organization, us taxpayers deserve more details on exactly how the grant dollars are spent.

    For example, how much did Ethan Strimling get paid when he was there? In addition, how much did Shenna Bellows get paid when she was there?