AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 150 babies crowded into Jewett Hall at the University of Maine at Augusta on Thursday morning. They were held, rocked, jiggled, pacified and bottled. But mostly they were being shown off by proud parents who had signed the babies up for a $500 grant through the Harold Alfond College Challenge.
The pilot program began in 2008 for 1,200 babies born only in MaineGeneral hospitals in Waterville and Augusta, but as of Jan. 1, every baby born in Maine will be eligible for the $500 NextGen College Investing Plan. The challenge is the nation’s first statewide philanthropic grant program.
It is expected that more than 14,000 babies will be born in Maine next year.
“I don’t know where the economy is going, but this is a starting point and it’s important to start somewhere,” Stephanie Cichowski said, holding her infant, Stella.
Shortly after signing him up for the grant, Jessie Sanipas of Waterville proudly passed his 6-month-old son, Rome, into Gov. John Baldacci’s arms.
“This is such an excellent program,” the new father said. Sanipas, who installs drywall for a living, said, “It will really give him a good start on his education, which is so important, especially here in Maine, where the economy is not the greatest.”
Baldacci leisurely walked through the auditorium, holding babies, caressing their heads, giving them kisses. “I feel like I’m on the fifth floor of Freese’s department store, waiting for Santa Claus, and all the children are screaming,” the governor said. “Today, Harold Alfond is our Santa, but I got to kiss and hold all these babies, and I’m not even running for anything.”
Addressing the parents, grandparents, hospital administrators, legislators and members of the Alfond family, Baldacci said, “Harold Alfond wanted all Maine children to have the opportunity to pursue higher education and to enjoy the benefits such education would bring to them and our state. He wanted Maine to lead the nation in making higher education a right and responsibility for all.”
Danielle Reitchel of Waterville and her 5-month-old son, Alex, were on hand for the celebration. “This is just such a great opportunity,” she said. “It will give him such a head start.”
Theresea Poirier of Palermo brought her 6-month-old son, Connor, to the event. “I know now that he’ll go to college. This is exciting,” she said. Poirier said the $500 seed money will encourage her to continue to invest in her son’s education account.
“Harold would be very pleased with our progress, but he would not want us to rest on our laurels,” Baldacci said. “He would be the first to say that our work is not done and ‘enough with the pats on the back, get back to work tomorrow.’ Harold would challenge us to enroll as many Maine newborns as possible in the program this coming year and to continue to spread the message of the importance of saving early for college and obtaining a college education.”
For more information about the Harold Alfond College Challenge, visit www.500forbaby.org, or call 1-800-228-3734.