Ilyassa Katou, left, and Bakar Ibrahim race to the ball during a game of dodgeball Friday at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston. Katou, 11, and Ibrahim, 13, are squad leaders at the center. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The building where Tree Street Youth started in 2011 had been a paint shop. After that, it was a preschool. Then it was a big, empty building.

Now, 10 years later, the outside is adorned with blue and green painted scales, the basketball court is buzzing with energy, and kids of all ages flow in and out of its doors with ease. The vibe: A more promising future.

The nonprofit that provides programming for city youth is marking its 10th anniversary this summer. Julia Sleeper, the executive director, co-founded the program with Kim Sullivan, though it was originally just meant to be a summer camp.

“We painted it up, designed a summer camp and ended up running our very first summer program in 2011, with eight teenagers from the neighborhood as street leaders,” Sleeper said. “The building was completely empty when we moved in. Every item of furniture was donated.”

Shafea Guhat leads an impromptu dance party during lunch Friday at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston. From left are Jaeda Jackson, Guhat, Nadira Ibrahim and Maher Ibrahim. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Sleeper saw an opportunity to create programming based on the large number of children in the downtown Lewiston neighborhood and the slow decline in summer camp scholarships. As summer drew to a close, the kids in the program started asking her and Sullivan about continuing through the school year. After a lot of fundraising, the two Bates College alumnae made it work.

Today, the facility is open year-round, free to all children. Programming serves 500 prekindergarten through seniors in high school, and includes academics, empowerment, college access, leadership, enrichment and mentorship. It has 13 staff members who support and direct the various programs.

The initial goal was to provide safety, which Sleeper believes has “multiple meanings.” First, there was ensuring the safety of the facilities and physical space. But there also needed to be safety in exploration.

“It was really more about allowing kids to be who they wanted to be, and the safety of that,” she said. “Being able to explore their identities, explore what they were navigating in the world, and be able to tell their truths of what they were experiencing.”

By all accounts, Sleeper and the staff at Tree Street have succeeded. Bakar Ibrahim, a 13-year-old who has been attending programming since he was 4 years old, values the community immensely.

“It’s a safe environment for all kids, no matter your age or race or whatever,” he said. “I like working with the kids, I always have a smile on my face. Tree Street has improved every year. They are always making it bigger, better, and (more fun).”

Every year, Tree Street has grown. Whether more staff, new programs or additional students, the center is always evolving. Betty Robinson has witnessed the changes up close as the first chairwoman of the board. She first got involved when Sleeper was her graduate student at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

“My goal, and I think the goals of several others that were part of the startup group that became the board, was really to support Julia and to support the youth in Lewiston,” she said.

Robinson believes that not only are youth the future of Lewiston, but “the future of Maine.”

Though the organization is on its feet now, she remembers every month of those early years feeling like “we were on the edge of the cliff” when she reviewed the finances.

Anna VanValkenburgh has lunch Friday with a child at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston. VanValkenburgh is a staff member at the center. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“We just kept fundraising and making the deadlines,” she said. “Julia is very savvy and brought in the right, from the start, handful of advisers who were older and more experienced in the nonprofit world than she was.”

Many community leaders, citizens and companies jumped at the prospect of donating to Tree Street because of the immense impact made on the community.

Androscoggin Bank is one such organization. Neil Kiely, the president, said he is impressed by the “generational change in our community,” and believes the bank’s support will be “paid tenfold to our community in the future.”

While Sleeper was less knowledgeable in fundraising and organization, she knew how to create curriculums that were really meaningful for those they served.

Tree Street has many different programs, catering to different age groups and genders. The Branches program is one of the first, and aims to provide youth with academic support, focusing on increasing high school graduation rates, college acceptance, career exploration and college retention rates of first-generation students in Lewiston-Auburn. The program has more than 250 alumni and a 95% college acceptance rate.

“I think we learned very early on that kids want to work, they want to develop skills related to jobs,” she said. “They also really love supporting the younger kids of the community; there was this deep compassion for making sure the little kids were always OK.”

The programs for middle and high school students focus on leadership, which Sleeper thinks is natural for them.

“For teens, realizing that younger kids are watching them, that they have someone looking up to them and that they are being relied upon, I think really challenges them to sort of grow themselves,” she said.

For many of the youth, mentoring other kids is not new to them. Oftentimes multiple children in a family attend Tree Street programming, which creates an intricate web of connections and support.

Jaleiah Wright, an 11-year-old who has been attending Tree Street programming since she was 3 years old, has three siblings also involved in the center in some way: Jacariya, Javahn and Jayden.

“Tree Street is like a second family,” she said. “It feels like my home. I know I can feel welcome whenever I’m here.”

Cast and crew members take a bow during a standing ovation and curtain call in 2019 at Olin Arts Center at Bates College in Lewiston. The Tree Street Youth group performed “I am Lewiston.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Tree Street program. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

Jaleiah is working as a squad leader in the Maple program, which means she is a middle school mentor for the elementary youth program. Her responsibilities include “keeping the little kids together and taking attendance.”

Her sister Jacariya, 14, is a street leader in the program. She is a high school mentor for the elementary youth program. She enjoys “building connections” with the youth, and has been at Tree Street since she was 5 years old.

Most of the mentors in the Maple program have been a part of Tree Street since they were in elementary school and chose to give back to the programs they were once a part of.

Marty Deschaines, who works at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College, has been familiar with the nonprofit since it was founded.

She believes those who participate in programming “attribute a lot of their success to their experiences and what they did during their youth at Tree Street” and want to give back to the organization and bring that success to others.

Alumni of the nonprofit, she said, create beneficial change within the community.

“We talk to young people who have gone through the program and who now are doing really interesting things in the community,” she said.

Tree Street staff members focus on adapting programs to the needs of the kids being served, Sleeper said. One example was helping prepare kids for the many changes created by the COVID-19 pandemic. One program created in collaboration with Lewiston public schools focused on helping with remote learning; it assisted the many kids who were stuck at home with bad internet connections, too many loud siblings or who just needed extra attention.

The remote learning program was something Hawa Abdi, 16, felt especially grateful for.

“They helped more than the teachers did,” she said. Socially distanced and wearing masks, Tree Street staff members helped kids do homework and classwork in a familiar space.

Faye Luppi, chairwoman of the board, has been involved with Tree Street for six years. She said she was impressed by the “resilience and growth” the staff showed in their adaption to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the amazing staff, Julia’s leadership, and support of the board we were able to dramatically pivot to first identify what the core needs were and move to take action,” she said. “I’m proud of the ways we created safe spaces and support for our most vulnerable.”

Luppi said she is “engaged by the bold energy and creativity of the youth” at Tree Street. “The kids feel like they have their own voice,” she said.

As for the next 10 years, Sleeper feels hopeful. Lewiston, she believes, is a place that can make anything happen.

“It’s a place where you can really, truly create things that have extreme significant impact,” she said. “Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You should do it. That’s what we teach the kids to do.”

Tree Street Youth is open in the summer from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. During the academic year, it is open for after-school programming from 2 to 6 p.m. Families interested in enrolling or partnering with Tree Street can reach out to Sleeper at [email protected] for more information. To donate, and for more information, go to treestreetyouth.org.

Julia Sleeper-Whiting, co-founder and executive director of Tree Street Youth, is swarmed by staff and her “kiddos” at the center in 2016. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the program. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo


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