LEWISTON — Three years ago, Laura Catevenis’ daughter was a year old, they were living on $367 a month in welfare benefits and Catevenis told state workers she didn’t want to go back to work.

She wanted to be the boss.

“They looked at me like, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” said Catevenis, 27. “I went in and I had sweatpants and a sweatshirt with spit stains and I have my daughter in one hand and I’m like, ‘I’m going to open a million-dollar business!’ They’re, ‘Ahh, no you’re not, you’re going to go back to work, honey.’”

She insisted — “Give me six months, I can totally do it” — and they finally relented, referring her to an agency that works with business startups.

This year, she’s projecting her company, Black Bear Support Services, will see gross revenue of $3.5 million.

The Lewiston-based business pairs support professionals with children ages 5-20, many on the autism spectrum, through a MaineCare program known as Section 28. Catevenis recently received state approval to expand to adult services and will soon offer a day program, in-home and career support.

Karleen Andrews, a microenterprise specialist at New Ventures Maine, helped Catevenis write her business plan three years ago.

“Within a few meetings with her, I could tell she had a lot of motivation and drive,” said Andrews, who holds Catevenis up as one of the 40-year-old agency’s success stories. “She wanted to change where she was and go in a new direction. I think there is some of that youthfulness, sort of like, she didn’t know that she couldn’t.”

Catevenis graduated from Lewiston High School a year early, in 2008, and pursued an associate degree in human services at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. In college, she worked for other Section 28 companies, helping children with life, coping and behavioral skills.

“I just loved helping the kids,” Catevenis said. “I always felt like I had a special connection with kids with autism. I was a field trainer. I would go out and get thrown into every single home in the company.”

The job also gave her early back-office insight into how she’d run things differently, given the chance.

By age 19, she’d done the math: She could open her own company, but she talked herself out of it.

“I wasn’t ready to be a boss,” Catevenis said. “I was too chicken.”

Over the next few years, she started and failed out of the University of Southern Maine. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She got pregnant with her daughter, Lydia, and separated from Lydia’s father, which led to leaning on programs such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and living on $367 a month.

It was a rocky period, she said. “We didn’t have any money. I knew I was better than that. I knew I could do something.”

Told after a year that she had to transition off TANF, the idea to start her own support services company came back.

Catevenis worked with both New Ventures Maine and the Small Business Development Center at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.

Business plan in hand, she said she needed three things to apply to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to provide services and bill under the Section 28 program: an official LLC, business insurance and an address.

“I literally rented the third floor of a stinky building with two offices and a little mini-mini waiting room, and it was $300 a month,” she said. “When the staff from children’s services came in, I literally had two chairs and a notepad. She’s like, ‘No big deal, this is great.’”

Six months after pleading to be given a chance, she was in business in 2016.

That meant hiring staff, finding or training behavioral health professionals and matching them with children already approved for services.

“Then you keep doing that over and over again until you grow,” she said.

Black Bear Support Services has 65 employees. She’s projecting that will grow to 200 by the end of the year as she expands into adult services, a move that made sense to diversify the company.

Many of the positions so far are part time. Average starting pay is $13 an hour with a $1 raise after getting Behavioral Health Professional certification.

“With MaineCare, you never know when a program is going to get cut,” she said. “If children’s services get cut, at least we’ll have adults. If adult services get cut, we’ll at least have children.”

Headquarters is at 465 Main St. The business also has offices in Portland and Augusta and is expanding soon to Bangor.

Catevenis said the current Lewiston location has room for a five-adult day program with each person staffed with one support person. She’s eyeing a 9,000-square-foot space with a kitchen to grow locally to work with 20 or more people in the program.

She said she’s been smart about delegating, creating systems and hiring the right people. She surprised office staff, about 18 people, several weeks ago by announcing she’d be paying for a three-night Bahamas cruise in October.

“I’ve lived off $367 a month, so I’m really big on giving, because I believe in the universe, and if you give, you will get back,” she said. “It’s a giant thank-you from me — not from the business, from me. I wouldn’t be here without them and I realize that.”

Two months ago, Catevenis bought a house in Lewiston for her and her daughter. She proudly says that she earns as much as her office manager. She doesn’t need to pull in a large salary, having lived on much less. Too many companies get caught up in greed and fraud and that’s their downfall, she said.

She’s happy to share her challenges, she said, as well as her goals: “My plan is in five years is to be across New England, and hopefully across the country. We’re not stopping here. I want to be all over the friggin’ world.”

Small Business Development Center Director Rose Creps said Catevenis makes it sound easy. It hasn’t been. Creps hopes Catevenis is a role model.

“There are so many young women that are in the shoes that she was in just a few short years ago,” Creps said. “(Somehow), she got this confidence she needed to change her world, and boy, has she done it. She definitely should be our entrepreneurial poster child.

“Not everybody is going to do what she did, (but) can you set goals and strive for success and reach them and surpass them? It’s all about building your own confidence.”

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Lewiston High School graduate Laura Catevenis is the owner of Black Bear Support Services. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

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