by Jillian Netherland | photography by Jose Leiva
“We are super-unique in that we are homegrown,” shares Julia Sleeper-Whiting, Executive Director. “All of our programming has developed from the community’s needs and what the kids are wanting.”
Two months to 12 years
Sleeper-Whiting and Tree Street Youth co-founder, Kim Sullivan, fell in love with the Lewiston community while attending Bates College as students, providing homework help and support to local children. In the summer of 2011, Sleeper-Whiting and Sullivan shared an idea to “create a space where everyone can come together to dream and have fun” – the only problem was, they needed a place to do it. That first year, Sleeper-Whiting and Sullivan ran a summer camp for elementary school kids with the help of college interns and eight local teenagers, now known as street leaders.
“The building we are in now had been sitting vacant for a while, so we decided to rent it for 2 months,” Sleeper-Whiting recalls. “When summer ended, the kids kept asking if they could come back after school. That hadn’t been the initial intent, and we weren’t sure about funding, but we were committed to making it happen for them.”
The summer camp trial run had been a success – so much so that the community rallied around Tree Street Youth to continue with after school programming. Originally run by a volunteer base from the college and AmeriCorps, Tree Street Youth continued to grow. It soon became apparent to Sleeper-Whiting that they needed to hire staff, as well as tackle another obstacle. The building they had been renting went up for sale.
“We had only been in existence for two-and-a-half years at that point, but we wanted to find a way to buy the building,” shares Sleeper-Whiting. Fortunately, Tree Street Youth was able to secure funding from the Genesis Fund to provide lending for the mortgage and by the organization’s 10th anniversary in 2021, they owned the building in full.
“The space is absolutely critical – we ran a capital campaign to fund the significant amount of work needed and build specific areas for big kids and little kids,” Sleeper-Whiting says. “It’s now a truly beautiful building, and completely renovated structure.”
Partnerships in programming
Today, Tree Street Youth provides programming in three categories: after-school programming, summer camps, and two daytime school programs co-created with Lewiston Public Schools.
“Our after-school and summer-school programs are at the core of Tree Street because they are what we did first and what most people know us for,” Sleeper-Whiting explains. “Over the last five years, we’ve been intentional about building relationships with the schools and other organizations that reach vulnerable children.”
This goal in building relationships has directly led to the collaborations that make the daytime school programs possible. The first of these programs, held across the street from Tree Street Youth at Next STEP, originated from the question: if you could do high school differently, what would you do? The initial pilot program comprised of 20 students was a success, and today serves 70 students who will all graduate with a Lewiston High School diploma.
The second daytime school program, Root Ed, is grounded in restorative education for students in transitional periods of their schooling. These transitions can include students who have been expelled, taking assessments for placements, and other various life interruptions and vulnerabilities. The program allows students to continue earning credits and working towards a high school diploma while in transition.
“Our ultimate vision is to cultivate leaders in the world – it drives everything we create,” says Sleeper-Whiting. “The special sauce to Tree Street is we empower youth, young adults, and the adults who care about them to build what they see as what kids need in order to respond to their various needs and vulnerabilities.”
This goal of creating leaders has transformed Tree Street into something of an incubator, guiding and supporting the co-creation of programs with systems leaders, schools, workforce development, and juvenile justice. Through it all, volunteers are still at the heart of the organization.
“We always welcome volunteers to assist in our after-school programs, help spread awareness through sharing our posts on social media, and support our special events and fundraisers,” states Sleeper-Whiting.
Something to celebrate
One of these special events is the Maine Summit Trek for Tree, a hiking fundraiser held at Lost Valley for competitive hikers, families, and everyone in between with three ways to participate:
- The Big Buck Fun Run Challenge provides the opportunity for all ages to climb to the summit, enjoying special stops along the way with a raffle at each stop and potential prizes that increase in value the higher you climb.
- The Endurance Hiking Challenge is for participants committed to walking, running, or hiking the Access Trail to the summit as many times as possible within a four-hour window.
- Fall Festivities, including chairlift rides and shopping at vendor booths are open to all, whether participating in a hike or simply joining to cheer on other hikers and supporting Tree Street Youth.
The most notable community event, however, is Tree Street’s annual awards day.
“We celebrate the end of the academic year with our annual awards – it’s a huge accomplishment for the kids and the teachers, too,” Sleeper-Whiting shares. Known as “the parade” throughout the community, everyone wears a special t-shirt and celebrates by making noise and cheering along a walk to Simard Payne Park where the festivities culminate with a dance party.
Although renowned for their after-school programs, Tree Street Youth has become a true thought leader in the state of Maine, working to build the right partnerships to better create equitable environments in youth, leadership, and economic development.
“People are hurting right now. Communities are vulnerable, and kids are hearing, witnessing, and seeing all the same things adults are, but they’re kids, and they don’t lose hope – kids are powerful like that,” Sleeper-Whiting affirms. “When kids have ideas on how they want to make the world better, they need adults to get behind them and support them – Tree Street Youth is a place where those ideas can flourish.”