LEWISTON — There’s a lot more room now at the Tree Street Youth Center for kids to stretch their legs — and learn, too.
Asked what the roughly 150 daily visitors are most excited about, executive director and co-founder Julia Sleeper had an easy answer: the gym. That’s where a few hundred people gathered Wednesday afternoon for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the organization’s expanded and renovated space on Howe Street.
“We could never have big gatherings together,” Sleeper said, referring to the old space. “What you’re standing in is really the fruits of all that labor and passion.”
The gym, complete with half-court basketball, also serves as a performing arts and assembly space. The large adjacent rooms were designed with high-schoolers in mind, featuring pool and foosball tables.
For Sleeper and the rest of the organization and its supporters, the celebration was a long time coming, but the process showed just how much the community supports it.
Since rolling out its expansion fundraising campaign in March 2016, Tree Street Youth raised $1.5 million for the project through donations from more than 350 individuals, businesses and foundations. A five-month construction process followed, which doubled the program’s indoor and outdoor space.
The new center was dubbed the Geiger Center for Learning and Leadership because one of the largest donations came from Geiger, a local business that publishes The Farmers’ Almanac. A news release for the ribbon-cutting said, “Tree Street is grateful for the widespread community support.”
The support allowed the center to expand from a section of the Howe Street building into the entire structure, taking over an old painting contractor’s warehouse next door and demolishing the northernmost building.
According to a news release, the work made room for the creation of two age-specific outdoor recreation spaces and the large multipurpose gymnasium room. The renovated space also provides new classrooms for middle- and high-school-age programs and an improved college/career aspirations center called the BRANCHES program.
It also affords elementary-age attendees their own space in the center’s original area.
In just a few years, Tree Street has grown from a small summer youth program with a few employees to a thriving community center with diverse programming. Sleeper said there are now eight employees, 12 volunteers and seven AmeriCorps members working there.
Tree Street is able to offer its programming at no cost to families because of support from the city, individual donors and grants.
During the ceremony Wednesday, speakers included Sleeper, board of directors Chairwoman Paula Marcus-Platz, and Ayman Mohamed, the first Tree Street youth member to graduate from college.
Mohamed, 24, said when he came to the country seven years ago, he didn’t speak any English. He said Tree Street made an immediate difference. Mentors prepared him for school, he did an internship there, eventually graduated from college and is now a working electrician.
“If it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t have success in my life,” he said Wednesday.
Natasha Mansfield, a parent of two Tree Street youth, said the center has grown from a rundown building into a “dynamic, safe, judgment-free zone that has become a beacon of hope.”
Gene Geiger commented on his family’s support for the project, as well as the state of the building during his previous visit. He said, “The last time I was here, this place was such a dump.”
But, he said, “There is nothing more important than the future of the young people in this community. We are just proud to be supporters of one of the most valuable assets there is in this community.”
According to the organization, the center is strategically located on walking routes to the elementary, middle and high schools.
“With 99 percent of youth living at or below the poverty level, and 65 percent hailing from immigrant or refugee families, Tree Street Youth provides an outlet of opportunities otherwise unavailable,” according to the website.
The work on the building was completed by Harriman Architects and Hebert Construction. Sleeper complimented both companies and thanked the construction workers for dealing with kids constantly asking to ride on the bulldozer.
Tree Street Youth is considered a key part of the downtown neighborhood revitalization effort.
At the end of the ceremony, guests were invited to tour the new facility, walking past rooms for tutoring and music. There was a brief moment when Sleeper thanked Geiger for the support.
“We dreamed about it, and there it is,” she told him.
The ribbon is cut during Wednesday afternoon’s ceremony that marked the official opening of a new section of Tree Street Youth in Lewiston. Prior to a tour of the entire facility, there were speeches and the ribbon-cutting in the multipurpose room, which will function as a performing arts center, gymnasium and assembly room.
Nyemha Hussein, 4, tries her hand at the organ as Maiya Edwards, 6, plays a guitar in the new music room during Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston.
Ayman Mohamed talks about how Tree Street youth helped him succeed in life and get a good education and job during Wednesday afternoon’s ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the new addition to the Lewiston program that took place in the multipurpose room that will function as a performing arts center, gymnasium and assembly room.
Tree Street Youth play foosball during Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the newly constructed portion of the Lewiston facility.