LEWISTON — Tree Street Youth, a drop-in center where inner-city kids can get help with schoolwork, learn to dance or play basketball, will celebrate five years of success Friday night.

The nonprofit center has won community respect and help from the powerful to the poor, largely because of the center’s leader, Julia Sleeper.

“Tree Street has made a difference in the lives of our kids,” said Somali community leader Rilwan Osman.

Julia has done a wonderful job for our kids, from her volunteer work at the middle school where she began working with our kids, to the Trinity Jubilee Center and now at Tree Street,” Osman said.

Former college professor and dean Betty Robinson, a member of the Tree Street’s board of directors, also praised Sleeper: “She pursues people who have the skills, she reels them in and makes stuff happen.”

Sleeper said what’s helped Tree Street grow is “an outpouring of support from every angle and corner.” From volunteers to donated paper towels, “we’ve been supported by schools, organizations, kids and families.”

In 2011, after raising $6,000 to rent part of a building at 144 Howe St., Sleeper and fellow Bates College graduate Kim Sullivan co-founded a summer youth drop-in program.

Five years later, the center is open year-round. Hundreds of downtown youths attend free programs, including one that helps them apply to colleges.

Operating with donations and grants, Tree Street now owns the Howe Street building, and is about to launch a major expansion to double and modernize its space. A fundraising campaign has brought in $900,000 of the needed $1.3 million.

The expansion will include an improved college/career aspirations center, a secure main entrance, a large multipurpose room to serve as a performance hall, a gym and a cafeteria. The Geiger Center for Learning and Leadership will open in 2017.

As for now, the center is bustling, inside and out. Tree Street youths speak 14 languages and are mostly poor and from immigrant families. They are staying in school, graduating from high school, making career plans and going to college.

“When these kids get their further education and come back, they’ll be working in the banks, running businesses,” said Paula Marcus-Platz, a local therapist who chairs the Tree Street Board of Directors.

Tree Street is also changing attitudes, raising awareness that the word immigrant “doesn’t have to be a label that keeps people in a certain place for life,” Marcus-Platz said.

Sleeper, 30, grew up in Brewer and attended Bates, where she got involved in service learning in Lewiston public schools.

Robinson met Sleeper seven years ago when Robinson was teaching a master’s degree program at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. Sleeper was one of her students who then worked at Trinity Jubilee Center’s homework-help program.

“She said, ‘If I just had a space,’” Robinson said. “I was impressed with her commitment to downtown youth, in particular immigrant youth.”

Robinson was near retirement and wanted to help younger women “doing cool things.”

Sleeper had the vision, the right relationships with children and families but lacked experience in running an organization.

Lewiston lawyer Michael Malloy helped Sleeper incorporate and establish bylaws. Word of what Tree Street was doing spread. More help came.

“Every time we thought there was a seemingly overwhelming hurdle, some new person appeared on the scene,” Robinson said. “None of us knew each other, but we were attracted to her passion and eloquence at what she wanted to do.”

What’s made Tree Street work is how the center builds relationships and responds to what children need, Robinson said. Teen volunteers, Street Leaders, are trained to mentor younger kids.

The fact that the center is open to students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 also helps, Robinson said. Many downtown youths are responsible for baby-sitting sisters and brothers. If they couldn’t bring them along, they couldn’t attend.

Young children at the center build aspirations. They watch older Tree Street youths graduate from high school and college. They see graduation pictures go up on walls. Graduates “are held up as returning heroes,” Robinson said.

With the planned expansion, Tree Street’s future looks bright, Robinson said.

“Julia has been a big participant to de-Julia-ize Tree Street,” also called “Julia’s bus plan.”

People who donate have said: “‘God forbid, what if something happened to Julia? Would Tree Street survive?'”

Board members and Sleeper are working on an “if-Julia-gets-hit-by-a-bus plan,” Robinson said with a laugh.

Tree Street Youth Center timeline:

2011: Opened as a summer drop-in center.

2011: Closed briefly, then reopened in the fall as a year-round after-school program.

2012: The center grows with more students, more support from volunteers and donations.

2014: The center holds an open house to show off programs, volunteers and youth mentors known as “Street Leaders.”

2015: Center announces its numbers of college-going seniors has increased through BRANCHES program.

2016: Announcement of plans for major expansion of the Howe Street building, creating new rooms, direct access to outside play areas, improved college/career aspirations center, secure main entrance, lobby and a large multipurpose room to serve as a performance hall, gym, assembly room and cafeteria. The “Geiger Center for Learning and Leadership” will open in 2017.

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