AUBURN — Three years ago, a couple of rising sophomores at Lewiston High School got an unexpected opportunity.
Jenna Burton and Julia Chabot were tapped among an inaugural group of 49 young women at seven Androscoggin County high schools to join a new initiative by former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Snowe said her mission was take in “extraordinary young women” such as Burton and Chabot and, with the help of mentors and programs, boost their confidence and their aspirations.
Chabot told the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce on Thursday that she figured at the time she joined the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute it would be “something small” that might be interesting.
It proved instead, she said, to be life-changing.
Burton said she went into it terrified because, “I was an insanely quiet girl.”
Now, she said, she’s learned “my voice has the power to make an immense difference” and she hasn’t stopped talking since.
Burton said that “scared sophomore girl” is now determined to join the Peace Corps after college and to work on the problem of malnutrition around the globe — an ambition she credited to the attention she received, for free, from Snowe’s institute.
Chabot, who plans to study culinary arts, said the first time she spoke with Snowe, who left office in 2012 after four decades of public service, she thought it was weird to speak with someone so prominent.
After a while, though, “it became normal,” Chabot said. And now she considers Snowe a friend.
She said she would never have imagined she could stand in front of a big crowd at the Hilton Garden Inn and be “completely fine” with it.
Many girls, Chabot said, are “afraid of everything in the world,” and can learn to overcome those fears to achieve their dreams.
She said the people she met through the institute “helped me in ways that I could never have helped myself.”
Christina McAnuff, the institute’s executive director, said the program has expanded each year so that it can now serve 465 girls at a cost of about $1,000 a year per student. They hail from every county in Maine now, she said, and attend a total of 36 high schools.
The program pairs trained volunteer advisers — high-achieving women — and brings everyone together monthly.
Its aim is to find students such as Chabot and Burton, whose teachers recognize their potential but worry they may shrink from the challenge as so many young women do. She said they are the sort of girls “who have stopped raising their hands” sometime in the difficult years between middle school and high school.
McAnuff said the program aims to help the students selected to find their values, learn that they have a voice and help them discover a vision that can take them to future success.
“We are investing in the next generation of women leaders in our communities,” she said.
In a video she made for the monthly chamber breakfast meeting, Snowe said she wanted to begin the program in her home community — she once lived on Elm Street in Lewiston and on Turner Street in Auburn — because she thought it was important “to start close to home.”
Snowe said that raising “the confidence and aspirations” of high school girls is a way “to strengthen Maine and give back to my gender.”
Beckie Conrad, the chamber president, said there are lesson for others in the way Snowe “rose to international prominence” from the streets of her hometown community.
“Let’s remember how strong we are,” Conrad said. “This community can take Maine to its future.”
Graduates of the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute spoke to the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce on Thursday to tout the program they took part in three years ago as sophomores at Lewiston High School. Jenna Burton, left, plans to attend the University of New Haven in the fall, while Julia Chabot intends to study culinary arts at Southern Maine Community College. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Christina McAnuff, the executive director of the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, spoke Thursday at a chamber breakfast gathering in Auburn about the program she oversees created to boost the confidence and aspirations of young women in Maine. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)