LEWISTON — On a recent afternoon, Tree Street Youth Center was filled with music as Isaac Kabuika played the piano.

The center on Howe Street is run by Bates College graduate Julia Sleeper. It is a bustling after-school gathering place where at-risk students — many from immigrant families — are tutored and mentored, and taught sports, dance, art, music and learn careers and college.

On a bulletin board titled “Hard Work Pays Off” are photos, college awards and acceptance letters, including Kabuika’s.

The 19-year-old arrived in Lewiston 21 months ago from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaking French but not English. He enrolled at Lewiston High School and learned fast.

In the fall he applied for early decision to Bowdoin College in Brunswick and was accepted. He’s the first Tree Street youth to go to Bowdoin. It’s making staffers smile.

“This young man is a genius,” Sleeper said. “He taught himself to play the piano by watching YouTube. He reads physics books we cannot comprehend.”

Kabuika is one of dozens of high school seniors that Tree Street staffer Allison Nolan and others have coached about college through the center’s BRANCHES program. It stands for Building Responsible Adults and Cultivating Higher Education Success.

The program is five years old, Sleeper said.

Four years ago, a handful of Tree Street students got help applying to college. Three years ago, 18 seniors got help. Last year, 23 seniors signed up. “We had a 95 percent college acceptance rate,” Nolan said.

This year, 33 students are in the program applying to multiple schools.

The program does work similar to the Lewiston High School Aspirations Lab. High school aspirations coordinator Doug Dumont said BRANCHES and his lab make a difference in students’ futures.

“The message students hear at Lewiston High and Tree Street reinforce each other,” Dumont said.

Kabuika came to Lewiston without his parents and moved in with an older brother in Lewiston.

“I learned about Tree Street,” he said. “This program did for me what a mentor or tutor would do. It taught me about the existence of many different things. I learned how college works here, how to apply to a university.”

He left his country “because there is war in Congo, instability in many things.” He didn’t want to talk about his life there. “They are not good memories,” he said.

When he arrived in Lewiston, “I did not speak English at all. I had to work hard to understand what people are telling me, to write in English, to read in English.”

In the Congo he was a good student. At Lewiston High School he was put in English Language Learning classes, but he said the courses were too easy. “For me it was not the best program. It did not take into consideration the academic level I had,” he said.

He got out of the language classes by doing well and doing more work than was required. “The teachers saw,” he said. “What I really appreciate is at that school if you work well, if you can show your abilities, they see that. They help you to improve yourself.”

Aspirations Lab coordinator Dumont said Kabuika is “one of the most motivated individuals I have ever met. He will be successful in anything he chooses to do.”

Kabuika said he’ll major in computer science at Bowdoin. “I want to be an IT guy.”

Ahmed Abo, 17, is another senior getting college coaching from Tree Street.

“They tell you what’s going on,” Abo said. “Our parents don’t know the process for applying for college. They can’t teach us that. Tree Street is here to help us.”

Abo was born in Kenya to a Somali family. He came to Lewiston in 2006 and has attended Longley, Montello, Geiger, Lewiston Middle School and Edward Little High School in Auburn when his mother moved.

He came back to Lewiston schools, saying his older brother was the first in his family to graduate, and did so from Lewiston. “I want to do that as well. Graduating is one of the big things. You remember that day,” he said. Lewiston High School “is like my home.”

He’s applied to several colleges and is planning to become an electrician.

If it weren’t for Tree Street’s program, “I probably wouldn’t have applied until very late. Thank God I came here,” Abo said with a smile. “I’ve applied for college ahead of time.”

Nolan said she’s excited that her program is showing growth. Staffers help students plan careers “by giving them a space where it’s safe. They can explore future interests.”

From a young age, children start hearing about career and college. Sometimes it’s a simple conversation asking what they want to be when they grow up.

In the summer, Tree Street holds a college challenge, six weeks of programs for grades six to 12. When students are high school freshmen, “we try to instill they need to be on it, working your butt off trying to get good grades, get involved,” Nolan said.

During the fall and winter of their senior year, “we’re guiding them through the financial aid process, helping with applications,” Nolan said.

Dumont holds a FAFSA Night in January to help students and parents fill out financial aid forms.

Nolan makes sure her seniors and parents go. “I round up all the kids, get the documents they need,” she said.

Often, at-risk students have the ability to go to college but lack confidence, Sleeper said. “What we found is challenging the kids to try something new at every age builds confidence. Kids who never dreamed they could read a poem on a stage, or draw a painting someone would pay attention to, helps them break out of their shells.”

When they’re in college, staffers stay in touch.

Four years ago, four Tree Street youths enrolled at the University of Maine at Farmington: Dahir Muktar, Abdirahman Ahmed, Abdikadir Hassan and Ibrahim Achekh.

“They’re doing great,” Sleeper said. “They’re all graduating this spring.”

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