Delegates from Lewiston pose with a banner during a visit to the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City in January. The group explored how to tackle generational poverty in hopes of finding ideas to bring home to Maine. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON – Despite a pandemic-induced pause, officials are determined to press forward with an effort to tackle the problem of long-term poverty that has held down some city neighborhoods for generations.

During a recent two-hour Zoom session, members of a Poverty Awareness Committee sought to catch up with one another, review where things stand and plan for a retreat next month to figure out what comes next.

Monique Roy, the Lewiston School Committee chairwoman, said that ultimately the goal is to have solid recommendations and clear goals “so that our work produced something” of value.

While the initiative remains in its earlier stages, its members are focused on how best to break an intergenerational cycle of poverty that has landed three downtown census tracts in Lewiston among the four poorest in Maine.

To help it find possible solutions, a dozen members of the committee traveled to New York City in January to see how a well-regarded nonprofit, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has sought to address poverty in a historically impoverished urban neighborhood.

Because of the intervention of the coronavirus pandemic, “it seems like it’s been a year” since the trip, said Peter Geiger, chairman of the poverty panel.

At least two members of the delegation got so sick during or after the journey that they wonder if they were among the early victims of COVID-19, before anyone realized the disease was quickly spreading in New York City, one of its first hot spots in the United States.

“We were there when it was going on,” Roy said.

Whether or not the illnesses were related, members said the swift spread of the coronavirus, and the shutdowns it spurred starting in mid-March, have been distracting for the panel, Geiger said.

“So much has happened,” he said.

Bobbi Avery, chief administrative officer for the Lewiston Public Schools, said one positive outcome of a difficult situation is that the schools and municipal departments “have found a way to blend and merge our interest together.”

That newfound spirit, together with more empathy and understanding of what people face, may help the committee’s work, she said.

Members of the panel talked about the lessons they learned in Harlem that may have some applicability to the situation in Lewiston.

Among the ideas that caught the attention of a number of the travelers was the holistic approach used by the Harlem Children’s Zone to provide wraparound services from birth all the way through college to children in the area and their families.

That the nonprofit constantly collected data to discern how it was doing and where it could improve also struck many as a good avenue for Lewiston to explore.

Betsy Norcross Plourde, executive director of the Promise Early Education Center, called it huge to see how data-driven the Harlem nonprofit is. She especially liked that it used the information immediately to help programs and individual students.

A Lewiston Police community resource officer, Joe Philippon, said he liked the clear goals that drive the decision-making at the Harlem nonprofit and the way it tries to create leaders out of its own staff, including many who grew up in the neighborhood.

Philippon said he was also impressed with the way the Harlem Children’s Zone opens its facilities to residents, something Lewiston could do as well. All that’s lacking in his hometown, he said, is access to existing resources.

Amanda Winslow, principal of Farwell Elementary School, said she’d like to see Lewiston employ a fitness and nutrition push like the one the Harlem organization has.

“That kind of support for kids,” she said, “is really the foundation.”

Geiger said he found it inspiring the way the Harlem nonprofit enmeshed health care, broadly defined, with education from birth onward in programs that went beyond the regular classroom.

“It doesn’t end at the end of the school day,” Roy said.

Geiger said it reminded him most of what the Tree Street Youth Center does with its intensive after-school programming in Lewiston.

Julia Sleeper, Tree Street’s executive director, said having all the programs in Harlem running under a single vision helped.

In Lewiston, she said, there are a lot of providers of key services, but they operate under different governing principles and people so it will be “a little bit more complicated” to figure out how to get everyone on the same page.

One of the keys to credibility, she said, is to make sure there are people in the community helping to run whatever is created.

Their insight, Sleeper said, is “one of the special sauces that made that program unique” in Harlem.

Roy said the bottom line is that for the effort to succeed in Lewiston, it has to be a community project that goes beyond the schools.

Geiger said there are many players. The question is going to be how to engage them all, he said.

Kaylene Mitchell, a facilitator who worked for the Gorman Foundation, said those involved need to think about what they’d like to see happen.

“What would it look like if you all were outrageously successful?” she asked.


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