LEWISTON — After 28 years of helping thousands of troubled and homeless youth, New Beginnings Executive Director Bob Rowe is retiring.

His last day is Friday, Jan. 29.

Rowe, 68, has worked with young people all his life.

“I like them — that makes a difference,” he said.

He has a high tolerance for bad behavior from kids who are hurting, he said.

“I understood from the beginning the behaviors are a disguise, ways of dealing with troubles and hurts kids have been through,” Rowe said. “My challenge was to discover the person beneath that.”

His first job at age 15 was for the Recreation Department of Randolph, a small town near Augusta. He organized games and activities. His motivation came from his parents.

“My mother told me, ‘Take a look at those other kids and make sure you include them,’” Rowe said. His parents provided him with Little League, playing sports at the YMCA, baseball camps and skiing.

“I felt gifted by my parents,” Rowe said, so I felt everyone else should be, too.

Children he’s worked to help have been sexually and physically abused. They’ve witnessed violence, parents in prison. They’ve been removed from parents’ custody by the state “who had the best interest of the child.”

“But the child’s interpretation of being torn out of a family is very traumatizing,” he said.

The hardest part of his work, Rowe said, “is facing the dark side of life every day. Sometimes I’ve thought I’ve stared at it too long. Holding on to a sense of optimism, sense of ‘things can be better,’ has been tested.”

But he and his staff know New Beginnings makes a difference.

At Christmastime, Rowe was at Wal-Mart. A man came up to him and said, “‘Aren’t you Bob Rowe? I know you. I was at New Beginnings in the ’90s.'”

The man shared his story, he was in trouble as a teenager, he stayed at New Beginnings and turned his life around. He’s now doing well — he’s employed, is a good communicator and was well dressed, Rowe said.

“He thanked me,” Rowe said. “I said, ‘That’s my Christmas present.’ All of our staff have had that experience of kids coming back.”

Not all do well, Rowe said. “But enough have that we regularly get feedback. It’s pretty rewarding.”

Rowe came to New Beginnings from a program that used physical restraints because children were harming or threatening to harm each other.

He wanted to figure out how to handle children by developing strong relationships between staff and youth.

“That’s been a big focus,” Rowe said.

Thanks to a John T. Gorman Foundation grant, that’s now written as part of New Beginnings’ curriculum.

Since 1987, New Beginnings has broadened programs to include a shelter, transitional shelter or apartments, street outreach “for kids so alienated they wouldn’t go to a shelter.”

Children who were hard to reach became the organization’s focus, Rowe said.

“The first thing we decided, we would learn from the kids by asking lots of questions. ‘What do you need? How do you need it? What’s the best approach? What do you want for a physical environment?’”

New Beginnings moved to its new home in a three-story building at 134 College St. last fall after a successful fundraising campaign. It has room for offices upstairs, conference rooms and classes. Its drop-in center has attractive furniture, a pool table, television, clean spaces to linger and eat and a place for young children to play.

The children “helped design this place,” Rowe said. “In doing that, we realized we’re also developing them. They were getting opportunities to take responsibility.”

Through his years, he’s seen more challenges for families. Jobs have disappeared.

When filling in during a weekend as a shelter supervisor recently, a young man recently told Rowe his story. He got involved with a “wannabe gang,” had been arrested and was on probation.

“He had been working on a dairy farm his grandparents owned, then his parents owned,” he said.

The farm failed.

“He knew everything about cows and tractors,” Rowe said. “He used to belong somewhere. He was valued. That collapsed.”

Listening — not asking ‘what did you do?’ but ‘what happened?’ — is a big part of the work New Beginnings staff does.

The economy has changed from manufacturing to financial, the loss of jobs “has been awful,” Rowe said. “Families get dislocated. The kids fall in these cracks. We’re the safety net.”

As executive director, “my job is to make sure the people here have the skills to do that, that we hire the right people.”

When he retires, he plans to become a volunteer, to continue playing in the Monday night basketball league.

He also wants to learn how to cook, get outdoors and do more kayaking and backpacking. And spend time with his dog, Peaches, who gives him those sad eyes every day when he leaves for work.

Rowe has had second thoughts about leaving the team of 40 employees, a network of volunteers. He’ll miss them. But the organization is in a good place.

“There’s a whole lot of very good people to carry on,” he said. “That feels good.”

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.