Unsung Hero: Willo Wright, guardian angel for troubled youth

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FREEPORT — Willo Wright’s early years in Bozeman, Mont., did not presage a happy future.

Other kids teased her constantly. She grew plump, which increased the ridicule. Her father died when she was 16. She got pregnant and married at 18. She later got divorced; then remarried; then divorced again. And along the way her drinking became addictive.

In 1986, Wright moved to Portland to be near her sister, bringing along her sole possessions in two bags and two suitcases.

“I needed to get my life together,” she recalled.

And get her life together she did. Wright got some therapy and became sober. She married Tom Wright, co-founder of Wright-Ryan Construction and had her third child. She earned a degree from Goddard College, majoring in psychology and women’s studies. And she began a new life chapter devoted to giving back.

Wright started as a volunteer for the Center for Grieving Children for several years. Then she began leading service learning trips to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, first with adults and later with young people.

The more she volunteered, the clearer it became that her passion focused on assisting troubled youth. After all, she’d been there; she knew the power of mentorship for helping young people find their bearings. So she began serving as a guardian ad litem, first for the Portland District Court and later for the state of Maine.

Wright then got involved with Jumpstart, a program for first-time juvenile offenders. Then she and her husband developed several programs devoted to helping at risk youth in Maine reach their full potential as independent, productive members of society. Today those programs all operate under the umbrella of Seeds of Independence, a mentor and volunteer-based nonprofit organization headquartered at Brunswick Landing, the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. They include:

• Jumpstart, an eight-week alternative criminal justice sentencing program for first-time juvenile offenders.

•Rebound, a 12-week program for repeat juvenile offenders that focuses on building self esteem, moral character and self-reliance.

• Beyond Long Creek Center, a mentor support program for incarcerated youth offering ongoing guidance after their release.

• Teen Parenting Group, a program for teen parents focusing on parenting skills and goal setting for independent living.

• Service Learning, projects designed to build youth skills, relationships and community commitment through exposure to new people and environments.

• School Peer Mentors, a high school program offering peer support to students in need of positive role models.

“These programs are all mentor-driven,” Wright said. “They’re all about relationships. We help young people learn to problem solve.” They’re also inexpensive: it only costs about $130 a year to work with each young person.

Wright and her volunteers have established great relationships with the courts; with juvenile community correction officers; with high schools in Brunswick, Topsham and Freeport, and with police departments and social services.

Tom Wright, who serves as executive director of Seeds of Independence, said “The underlying philosophy of Seeds is the belief that our youth are our most valuable resource.”

Wright can’t imagine doing anything else with her life than working on behalf of troubled youth. “This work fulfills me spiritually, emotionally and physically,” she said. “This is what I’m meant to do.”

Sidebar Elements

Willo Wright of Freeport.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.