FARMINGTON — After 15 years of helping homeless teens in Franklin County find housing and jobs, Ernest Gurney is ready to take some time off.

An Outreach Worker II for the nonprofit New Beginnings, Gurney, 61, of Rangeley is leaving the position at the end of January. He will continue per diem through February to help the new person through the transition and to assure the teens he works with that everything will be okay, he said.

“A New Beginnings worker in Lewiston wouldn’t get attention for retiring,” Gurney modestly said of his local identification with the work.

“I love this community,” he said. “In Franklin County, we know each other and work together.”

He also loves the kids, ages 16 to 20, whom he advises and assists with the resources to help, he said. He finds ways to make opportunities arise which move them forward in their lives.

“Those resources are depleting, but the need is increasing,” he said.

Gurney saw nearly 50 new clients a year from around the county. Most months, he had about 25 open cases with about a dozen of those falling in a high-maintenance category, he said.

After working with Western Maine Community Action to help teens find employment, Gurney realized they had more needs than just getting jobs.

When New Beginnings hired outreach workers to bring help to kids rather than having them go to Lewiston, Gurney was hired for Franklin County.

He started talking with court and school officials to learn about teens in trouble or those considered homeless because they aren’t living in their own homes.

It’s not like Lewiston; kids are not out on the street in these rural areas, he said. Some are couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another.

“That’s always shaky,” he said. “Anything goes wrong and they are out.” 

Locally, there is no shelter for teens, he said. It’s a difficult leap to leave local social supports at 16 or 17 and move to the shelter in Lewiston.

“There are a lot of kids out there on their own with less than $100,” he said.

They also don’t have transportation.

Much of his work consists of taking clients looking for work up and down Route 4, he said.

New Beginnings does have a Community Living Program, a two-unit home in Farmington where young people can live up to a year and a half while they work on their issues, he said. Several are pregnant or teen mothers.

Gurney sees each teen as a unique individual who needs a different approach.

“Kids are open to me,” Gurney said. From the start, “I tell them, ‘This is not my life — it’s your life. Tell me what to do.'”

He does, if it makes sense. Gurney called himself a reality checker.

The students need to be motivated and willing to make the effort. “I don’t tell them or diagnose their problem,” he said.

About 50 percent of his referrals come from kids he has helped. They tell friends, “You’ve got to meet this guy.”

“I really didn’t do that much,” he tells those who come back to see him.

The job becomes your identification, something you can own, he said. It brings value to life and pride, but it can also be extremely frustrating.

Gurney has had no more than seven days off at any time since 1998. When an opportunity arises for these kids, you have to be there or the window shuts, he said. There aren’t many local chances.

He’s now ready to redefine his life and how he spends his time — perhaps some writing, photography or just taking long hikes.

“I want to play in the sandbox for the rest of the year,” he said. “I’ve worked since I was 12 years old.”

Raised in West Paris, Gurney moved to Rangeley in his teens when his father became town manager. He majored in English at the University of Maine at Orono and spent 14 years working for the Department of Human Services as a case worker and manager.

He has lived in Rangeley the past ten years and commuted to Farmington.

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