LEWISTON — Back in 1979, Mary Ruchinskas was on board to help start the nonprofit that would become Safe Voices and was wrapping up a one-year position helping to launch Advocates for Children when her boss told her about the opening of a teen shelter, New Beginnings.

They were hiring. She should look into it.

“I was there on the first day,” Ruchinskas said. “My eyes got opened pretty quickly about the struggles of families and what can happen to youth.”

She didn’t leave for 36 years.

Hearing stories of neglect, abuse and parents who had died or had been locked up, “I developed a real respect and admiration for the kids and the amount of resiliency they had, to live through often pretty difficult lives and still be working towards something better,” she said. “I always felt a lot of hope for the future.”

Ruchinskas grew up in Massachusetts and came to Lewiston to attend Bates College on a scholarship in the Class of 1974.

She moved off campus her junior year into an apartment on High Street, close to where Central Maine Medical Center’s driveway is today. When the hospital bought the property to expand, she and everyone else in the building were served eviction notices.

“The family that lived below me was really concerned about having to move in the middle of the school year,” Ruchinskas said. “I’d heard about the (Lewiston) Tenants Union and thought we should maybe contact them. They did get involved and negotiated with the hospital so that people had more time to find a new place to live.”

That led to other advocacy work with the Tenants Union and getting more attached to the community. After graduation, she and a group of Bates friends decided they’d stay.

As a teen, Ruchinskas had volunteered to tutor at a local boys’ reform school, which helped shape her interest in New Beginnings and its mission when it opened with 10 beds in Greene in 1980.

“One (reform school story) I remember very clearly was a boy who had been sent there, not from any big crimes, but mostly because his family wasn’t able to really take care of him,” Ruchinskas said. “He didn’t feel safe going home and told me he’d really rather stay there and that he might get in trouble again in order to be sent back.

“Another boy I worked with had been sent there for a very minor crime like shoplifting and told me kids who had done more serious crimes had told him how to steal cars,” she said. “It hadn’t been a positive place for him, and when I heard about what New Beginnings was trying to do, to have a better, more supportive alternative to locking kids up, I think that really appealed to me. I will say I was pretty naive about what the circumstances of the youth coming into the shelter were.”

Part of her job the first seven years included reading 1,700 client files to collect statistics.

“The stories of what had happened in these kids’ lives are something that stayed with me and really gave me a strong knowledge base for helping me do what I did for the rest of my career there,” she said.

Her work there changed over the years: working with kids, writing grants, bookkeeping, substituting anywhere in a pinch.

The shelter expanded to 12 beds and moved to Lewiston in 1986. In the late 1980s, Ruchinskas helped develop an HIV prevention program as well as an outreach program.

She retired in October after 36 years that she said feels like they went by in the blink of an eye.

Ruchinskas said she was driven by asking, “How can we do this better? How can we make our work more effective? Can we feel good about really helping kids to move forward?”

Now, looking back, “it feels really satisfying,” she said. “I feel like we built a really solid foundation.”

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Mary Ruchinskas is surrounded by friends and colleagues last month as New Beginnings’ Youth Outreach/Drop-In Center was dedicated in her honor. Ruchinskas retired in October after 36 years at New Beginnings. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

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