LEWISTON – Joe Menard was headed for big trouble at 14.

Now he’s headed for college.

It’s a dream come true for his mother, Pattie Menard, who five years ago was afraid of what would happen to her son. They both credit Opportunity Farm, a group home for at-risk youth in New Gloucester, with turning his life around.

The 19-year-old plans to major in education at Husson College in Bangor in the fall. He’ll go to college with the help of an Opportunity Farm scholarship. He wants to be a teacher.

That seemed unlikely a few years ago.

As a seventh-grader at Lewiston Middle School, he was getting in a lot of trouble and not doing well in school.

“I was getting into a lot of fights. I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing,” Menard said. “I was a punk. I didn’t care what anybody had to say.”

Part of the problem was that Joe didn’t have a positive male role model, Pattie Menard said. She was a single mother who feared her son faced a dim future.

But Joe wanted a good life.

He watched as both sisters, who were a few years older, dropped out of school. One became pregnant at 15. They went through “real hard times,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want that to happen.”

His cousin, who lived at Opportunity Farm, gave Pattie Menard a DVD about the program.

“I refused to see it for three or four weeks,” she said. “I felt like I was abandoning him if I let him go. I just couldn’t do it.”

She eventually watched it, then visited the campus with Joe. They liked what they saw.

“I was still fearful, but I let him go,” she said.

He moved out.

She cried.

Getting a life

Life on the farm was “extremely structured,” Joe said. “The biggest thing I gave up was my freedom. At home, I was able to do whatever I wanted.”

At Opportunity Farm, he had to do his homework and could no longer go where he wanted when he wanted.

“I didn’t like that at all,” he said. He was expected to do his chores, keep out of trouble at school and be a productive person.

When he didn’t do as expected, he lost privileges such as television, phone time and snacks. The structure helped, he said. “I got good grades for once in my life.”

After a year, he figured he didn’t have to live at the farm any longer. He went home and began as a freshman at Lewiston High School.

But without the structure of Opportunity Farm, he didn’t do his school work. Soon he couldn’t play football because of poor grades. He skipped school.

“I was getting back into exactly what I was doing before,” Menard said. He decided Lewiston High School was too big for him.

His mother worked to get him back into the Gray-New Gloucester school system – which he attended when he lived at Opportunity Farm – but he flunked his freshman year. Deciding he needed more structure in his life, Menard talked his way back into Opportunity Farm.

He spent the next three years living in the group home and attending Gray-New Gloucester High School, where he played football. “I love football,” he said. “Football and the farm got me through school.”

For his community service requirements, he worked with the elderly at a Lewiston nursing home and tutored younger students.

He graduated from high school in June. This summer, he’s working as a camp counselor and getting ready to leave home again. His girlfriend of five years, Stacey Libby, will also attend the college in Bangor.

When he was 14, Menard hoped he’d be successful as an adult. “But you can hope to be a millionaire. If you don’t have the skills, you won’t get there. That’s what the farm gave me, the skills and drive to get there.”

Menard’s story is featured in the farm’s newsletter under the headline “A Mother’s Story of Hope.”

The journey was shared by Menard and his mother, said Julie Poulin, director of development and community relations at Opportunity Farm.

“She worked just as hard as he did,” Poulin said, by supporting and encouraging her son.

Pattie Menard is proud of the outcome.

She’s watched her son go from “a punk to a wonderful young man who’s going to college, who wants to teach young children. He’s got a life now.”