LEWISTON — Tree Street Youth closed its summer program Thursday with a big celebration and announcement: It has purchased the 144 Howe St. building it has rented for three years.

“I’m super excited about the potential and all the opportunities it allows us,” said Julia Sleeper, Tree Street’s executive director. “Our roots are officially planted.”

She said she’s been dreaming of owning a building since she founded the nonprofit organization in 2011.

Tree Street provides free social and academic programs, both after school and during the summer, to 500 at-risk youths, including many from immigrant families.

Families and parents on Thursday “were real excited,” Sleeper said. “They really appreciate and recognize how hard we worked.”

Sleeper expressed gratitude for the help the program has received from the community.

“It’s only because so many people have rallied that we’ve gotten to this point,” she said. “There’s been so many collaborative efforts. The community should be proud.”

Sleeper did not disclose how much Tree Street paid for the building. The mortgage will be met out of its budget, which comes from grants, donations and community support.

Tree Street bought the building from landlords Dave and Pam Deschambeault. Owning the building means there’s more space for programs, since the owner’s son had housed a business in half of the building.

Tree Street’s square footage will almost double — from 6,500 to 10,000 — allowing the nonprofit organization to eventually build “a real dance studio, a music and art room, much more adequate space,” Sleeper said. “Right now, we have to overlap; the little kids’ playroom is also the dance studio.”

After renovations, there could also be a larger community space for gatherings, Sleeper said. Renovations will likely take a year or two, since money will have to be raised.

The Genesis Community Loan Fund, a foundation that brings together resources to create opportunities for under-served communities, helped facilitate the low-interest loan, Sleeper said.

Betty Robinson, chairwoman of the Tree Street board, said the organization looked hard to find a home, examining several buildings in the neighborhood. The building across from Longley Elementary School was the best choice.

“It’s so accessible for the kids,” Robinson said. “When we were able to negotiate with the owners, we were thrilled. The location is perfect.”

The Genesis fund made it happen, she said. “They became very interested in what we are providing youth.” Tree Street was also helped by local lawyer Michael Malloy of Brann & Isaacson, as well as Harriman Architects & Engineers “and many more,” Robinson said. “They’ve helped Julia take this to another level.”

Robinson herself is the former dean of the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. She got involved when Sleeper, as a graduate student, was writing a thesis on how to help at-risk youth.

“I was fascinated with the work she’s been doing with the refugee population,” Robinson said. “As she was writing her thesis, I was contemplating my retirement.” She joked that it’s a grad student’s worst nightmare to have her professor “follow you into the community” and become chairman of the board.

What Sleeper is doing, Robinson said, is brightening students’ economic and social futures. It’s critical, she said.

“Tree Street’s youth is the community’s population growth,” she said. “These kids have to succeed.”

Last year, 24 Tree Street youths who graduated from high school went on to post-secondary education. This year, the number grew to 40, Robinson said.

After-school programs begin Sept. 10.

Read 2011 story when Tree Street started, https://www.sunjournal.com/city/story/1059894


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