Ashley Medina, a vocational coordinator for Goodwill’s Take 2 youth program, also volunteers extensively for Healthy Neighborhoods, an organization working to transform the Tree Streets neighborhood. (Submitted photo)

LEWISTON — Everything changed for Ashley Medina when she lost her home to a fire almost six years ago.

Ashley Medina, center, cuts the ribbon at the “Heart and Soil” vegetable garden last year on Birch Street. (Submitted photo)

When she saw the Tree Streets community come together after a string of devastating fires in 2013, she changed careers and began advocating for change in the neighborhood.

“When the fires happened, it really got me closer to the community,” she said. “Being an advocate, and caring about people, has always been in me.”

Since that time, Medina’s presence in the community has grown, and she is now at the center of a community-led effort to transform the neighborhood.

Medina said her job for Goodwill’s Take 2 youth literacy program led her to Healthy Neighborhoods, an organization working to make downtown Lewiston safe, healthy and welcoming.

She said it made her excited to see a group of people with a similar drive to change the image of the neighborhood, which has historically been plagued by substandard housing and poverty.

She said because she has lived in the neighborhood pretty much her whole life, she was able to add perspective to the group’s efforts.

Medina, who turns 30 this month, is one of 15 volunteer members of the Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council. She also serves on the organization’s community engagement team.

Anytime the organization hosts an event, she is there, often with her two children. As the group has embarked on a community-led process to utilize a federal Neighborhood Choice grant, it has held a series of events aimed at engaging the community.

Lewiston recently became the first city in Maine to be awarded a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Its main purpose is to plan and implement major improvements to housing, safety, community spaces and support services in the neighborhood. The program is bringing neighborhood residents into the process, which has led to smaller community projects such as public art and a community garden.

Medina cut the ribbon during an event last year celebrating the “Heart and Soil” Vegetable Garden on Birch Street, and she has been one of several volunteers during a recent series of community vision and goal-setting events for the grant.

According to Healthy Neighborhoods, the recent conversations with neighbors will help the organization create a vision statement to describe “how our collective community pictures downtown Lewiston in 10 years.”

Her job at Take 2 and her volunteer work often intersect.

Medina described Take 2 as a job training program for at-risk youth and young adults between ages 17 and 24. She said the young adults with whom she works often get involved with Healthy Neighborhoods because they also live in the Tree Streets. At a recent goal-setting events, she said part of the discussion was how the grant could assist with youth activities.

She said those involved with Healthy Neighborhoods are excited by the grant process, seeing it as possible momentum for a neighborhood that is often looked down on.

“It feels good,” she said. “There’s so much negativity around the downtown, so much stigma that people in the neighborhood don’t care. That’s just not true.”

The Tree Streets neighborhood is defined as the areas within and surrounding Park Street to Jefferson Street, and Ash Street to Maple Street.

Craig Saddlemire, coordinator for the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative and a member of the Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, said hundreds of people have volunteered for the organization.

He said outside the council and advisory group, which consists of anyone from the public who attends meetings, there is also a group of between 20 and 30 people who are actively involved.

Saddlemire said he remembers after the fires when, during a City Council meeting, Medina spoke “very powerfully” about what had happened.

He said she later described that as a moment she had been awaiting so she could “speak her truth” in front of the policymakers who make important decisions for the neighborhood.

“She has continued to discover the power she has to inspire others and to use that to better the neighborhood,” he said.

Medina said she came to Lewiston from Texas with her family when she was very young. Her mother told her they were among the first Mexican families to move to the city.

She said her son and daughter are now old enough to tag along with her to neighborhood events. When she was younger, she said, she did not understand “how important community is,” but is trying to raise her kids to be leaders.

She is hoping more people get involved.

“It takes a village to make a difference, and people can sit back and complain about this and that,” she said. “But unless you’re putting in the work to help make a difference, it’s not going to create change. That’s why I do it.”

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