BRYANT POND — Lyndsey Smith counts dozens of kids as her own and she takes them wherever there is adventure to be found. Smith is program director for NorthStar, a partner in Aspirations Incubator’s rural youth mentoring program. Six communities from Biddeford to Cherryfield are participants in the six-year pilot project, which was funded by the Emanuel & Pauline A. Lerner Foundation in Portland and is based on principles developed by Trekkers, a mid-coast Maine youth development organization.

Lyndsey Smith of Bethel is program director for NorthStar, an SAD 44 youth development program funded by the Lerner Foundation of Portland. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“I have offices all over and meet kids all over, but this is my office right here,” says Smith, gesturing to a large plastic tote at her feet. “I have an office, and my coworker has an office at the School, I have an office out at Bryant Pond. But I mostly work out of my car. I just carry this everywhere with me.

“Our goal is to raise rural aspirations for Maine youth. The Lerner Foundation spent a year networking and meeting with youth serving organizations that are strongly connected to school systems and in 2017 Bethel was chosen as one of the communities to locate in.”

After a months’ long training in Trekker’s 10 principles for youth development, Aspirators Incubator placed Smith in the Bethel school system in 2017. The first half of the school year she spends connecting with students in seventh grade at Telstar Middle School, assisting in the class room and engaging with students. Since 2009 she has worked with SAD 44 through the Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center.

“We hang out in the classroom, help the kids with homework and help teachers with after-school activities,” Smith said. “The first half of the year is spent building relationships with students, which is the basis of mentoring. We do a full day of service with the seventh graders and we do activity days like a climbing wall, ice fishing, mountain biking. We also plan cultural events. We recently did A Day of the Dead, which is the Mexican holiday celebration, Día de los Muertos. We do an overnight field trip to the Common Ground Fair in Unity. ”

Among the community partners Smith has engaged with NorthStar is the local Rotary for service projects and Hailey’s Hugs, a local non-profit organization that supports families of children with cancer. NorthStar has also started a community garden in Bethel at the request of one of her students, to provide food to seniors and others who may have a hard time accessing healthy food.

At the beginning of the calendar year Smith opens enrollment to roughly 12 students who wish to participate in Aspirators Incubator programming. She takes referrals for kids from school staff and inquiries from parents, but any seventh grader who wishes to participate may apply and continue through the six year project; there is no cost on the part of the families. Some grade groups have as few as nine taking part and one group has 15. She has never had to refuse any kids and she maintains a “Friends of NorthStar” list so that interested students not formally enrolled can still take part in individual activities.

NorthStar created a community garden in Bethel at the request of one of its student participants. The students will distribute fresh food to seniors and others in the community. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Smith is free to develop local programming based on what the community has to offer and how they can serve children’s needs, focusing group activities on adventure education. Her NorthStar associate, Tara Pocock, adult community volunteers and Bryant Pond staff lend support during various group meetings and trips.

She has built a general schedule that stretches out over the six years of the program, although the last year was disrupted by COVID. For six months in 2020, no face-to-face activities could be scheduled so Smith carved out time for Zoom meetings with the individual kids all last summer, just checking in and offering support.

“We did a few longer, cohort sessions on Zoom last summer,” Smith said. “But no one wants to be on [the computer screen]. We’d rather be outside.

“During our individual sessions kids could just tell me what’s going on. It’s conversational, sometimes they want advice or just someone to listen to. Sometimes it’s serious and I’ve had to alert parents.”

The first thing students do after joining NorthStar is visit the University of Maine-Orono to learn about education and careers.

“We visit the college campus with the seventh graders and go to the aquaculture research center, their farm,” Smith said. “The eighth graders, we tour a New England college, choosing a place that isn’t easily accessible to rural students.”

Outings are as varied as trips to Portland for Sea Dogs games, camping trips to Acadia National Park and movies and video game competitions at The Gem Theater, a community partner that Smith says is super supportive of Bethel’s youth.

“I am available to the families pretty much any time,” Smith said of summertime, when she does not see kids daily in school. I always have my cell phone and they can call me whenever. Individually, they can call on me for mental health stuff, if something is bothering them like family challenges – for the kids and parents.

“We call it IRT, individual relationship time. We aren’t trained social workers, but our relationships with parents are just as important as they are with the kids. We make ourselves super available, and it’s year round, not just during the school year.

“We will make house calls if they don’t have transportation. Social isolation in rural communities is so real. We’ll pick them up, drop them off, take them to do whatever healthy activities are planned so they can be a part of a positive social group.

A Telstar Middle School student reflects on the shore during a NorthStar canoe trip to Lake Umbagog last week.

Smith had just returned with her seventh graders from canoeing at Lake Umbagog, a close-to-home substitute for the previously planned trip to Acadia. Next, she led each of her two oldest groups, sophomores and seniors, on two-night camping excursions to Lower Richardson Lake.

Midway through the six-year project, the Lerner Foundation has released an interim report on its progress, based on data collected through three different avenues and analyzed by University of Southern Maine’s Data Innovation Project group.

“The first is the holistic student assessment, we call it the HSA,” Smith explained. “Students take it twice a year – at the beginning and ending of the program year. The first assessment is how the kids feel at that point. It’s a big survey, more than 50 questions, and it’s all in the kids’ voices. The answers are a five point scale.”

“For example, ‘do I like to move my body,’ is one question and at the end of the year they answer again, after they’ve had six months of adventure education. It assesses learning, health and physical objectives, relationships and belonging.”

The second data set comes from surveys of eighth and 10th graders, where they are asked questions about their future aspirations like if they want to attend college, about optimism and perseverance. The Data Innovation Project group interviews also interviews those groups in person.

The third component is based on school performance, attendance, academic standing and shifts.

Among the findings of the interim report: 93% of students in all six community groups felt that Aspirations Incubator had helped them feel connected to their community, 95% had experienced new places and 98% said it helped them accept people who are different from them. The kids were also half as likely to be chronically absent from school, compared to others in the same grade level, and 88% of eighth graders surveyed said they believed they would pursue post-secondary education.

The Lerner Foundation will wrap up Aspirations Incubation in 2023 and will itself be dissolved, as the organization put its entire endowment into the pilot project. According to Smith, the program directors are developing relationships with other parties to continue its mission and incorporate it into other rural communities.

“What I have seen from this is that students are so thankful to have something to do, to be a part of a group and develop hobbies,” Smith said. “If you ask them, they might say they were a couch potato before NorthStar, or spent their time playing video games, things like that. They found that they could open their hearts and minds to people that they normally might not be friends with. They can look past differences and find commonalities with other people.

“It’s also given them confidence and voice. Some of my shyest students have become leaders. There has been a lot of growth since they were in seventh grade. It’s been so cool to watch their paths and how successful a lot of them have become.”


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