BRUNSWICK — Mike Whitney, a trained therapist, is the first to admit middle school is harsh.
“(Kids) have to put on their masks to go to school,” he said Dec. 17 from Seeds of Independence, a social services nonprofit based in an old U.S. Navy building at Brunswick Landing.
“But they don’t have to put it on here,” he added.
Whitney is an instructor for Program Grit, a new, independent, after-school program organized by Seeds. It’s the pilot year and, word is, it’s working pretty well.
“What do you think of Grit,” Whitney shouted across the room to Austin, a sixth-grader.
“It’s pretty awesome these days,” Austin responded. “A lot better than school.”
Austin is one of the 16 sixth-graders who are part of Program Grit. Grit, which Seeds named after one of the “five habits of mind,” operates independently from the three school districts it serves: the Brunswick School Department, School Administrative District 75 and Regional School Unit 5.
Students who might need extra support outside of school hours, for whatever reason, can be referred by their teachers to Seeds. If parents or guardians choose to send their child after meeting with Seeds instructors, the nonprofit covers all the costs of attendance.
Grit runs from 3:30-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and staff and volunteers run everything from art classes, to structured homework sessions, to martial arts workshops.
Even though it can be so hard to fit in to the outside world, Whitney said, whether it’s because kids are struggling in the classroom or being bullied, “here, the world fits back.”
Grit hosted a holiday party Dec. 17 to showcase the work the kids had done since August, and upwards of 50 people packed Seeds’ Burbank Avenue campus.
In the main art room, Logan, 11, wearing a festive bow-tie, showed off a dress he’d been working on this year.
The skirt was made of red mesh, and studded with maroon ornaments. The top was made of silver sequins. The two parts of the outfit, which Logan would later sew together, were pinned and draped on a mannequin.
Logan wants to be a fashion designer when he grows up. “I really just like it and think it’s fun,” he said.
A few minutes later, Mariyah, also 11, walked into the room to model another of Logan’s works. This dress was pink and black, and fell all the way to the floor.
Lisa Walker, a Grit instructor, applauded. “You look beautiful, Mariyah,” she said.
“Logan comes to Grit to work on his fashion design,” Walker said. “Where else can you do that?”
Outside, Seeds co-founder Tom Wright stood in the hallway as kids, parents and teachers walked and ran between the various rooms.
“What happens to kids,” Wright said, “is they get more and more disengaged … how do you get that back?”
To try to address that question, Seeds decided to focus intensely on supporting sixth-grade students, Wright said.
“We were advised that was the best year to go after,” he said, “because they’re still bright-eyed and interested.”
And, according to him, the program is working. The fact that 16 kids from three different school districts came together to organize a party to show off their academic, art, culinary and textile work is testament to that, he feels.
“They’ve created their own community,” he said.
Wright said Seeds’ wants to add a younger cohort, possibly fifth-graders, to the mix. It takes about $250,000 a year to operate Grit; the board at Seeds is looking to raise money and obtain grants to expand the budget.
Seeds got a little bit closer to that goal Dec. 17, when Larissa Darcy, vice president of Bar Harbor Bank & Trust in Topsham, presented an $800 check to co-founders Tom and Willo Wright on behalf of her company.
As the afternoon grew late and the crowd thinned out, Mariyah stayed on, still wearing Logan’s dress.
She moved up and down the hallway, showing off a large canvas painting of a cat, along with three tiny handmade cat outfits.
“Her creativity is just over the moon,” Willo Wright said of Mariyah after the event. “She was real shy and anxious when she first came here, and she’s become a real leader.”
“And,” she added, “she’s close to being a straight-A student.” Mariyah’s report card hung in a glass case with other students’ on the wall: she’d made the honor roll this year.
In Grit’s first newsletter, Mikel Whitney had posed a question about what happens when a child “falls through the cracks.”
“We can never be certain what is lost,” he wrote, “because we were never allowed to see what could have been.”
Logan, 11, shows off a dress he has been making at Seeds of Independence’s Program Grit, a new after-school program in Brunswick.Mariyah, 11, models a dress made by her friend Logan.