LifeJackets program can improve self-esteem

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 8:44 p.m.

Young people ages 12-15 living in rural Penobscot and Piscataquis counties have the opportunity to participate in the Charlotte White Center’s LifeJackets Program, a free after-school program helping young people develop self-esteem and self-worth in collaboration with five local school districts and several area social service agencies and environmental organizations.

LifeJackets youth group coordinator Stephen Madera reports the next session begins the week of Nov. 29 with an orientation meeting at each of the four program sites in Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford, Milo, Corinth and Dexter.

Participants meet from 3 to 6 p.m. once a week at each site. Transportation to the site is provided, but carpooling is encouraged for the trip home.

Parents and guardians are requested to attend the orientation meeting, communicate with the program leaders monthly and make travel arrangements.

During each session, a half-hour is spent on homework with help from peer leaders, and each session has snack time.

Once a month, children cook a meal and clean up after.

“We used to do that every week, but with budget cuts we can’t anymore,” Madera said, pointing out LifeJackets is not exempt from budgetary woes.

That is also why the Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford sites were combined: to save money.

LifeJackets is funded through two major Department of Health and Human Services grants, one each for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties; by United Way of Eastern Maine and well-known local and national foundations.

But those grants and donations are not what they used to be, and the DHHS grant has been reduced 38.5 percent, Madera said.

The program dates to 1994 when some Dover-Foxcroft area residents, including representatives of major nonprofit organizations and associations, met to talk “about how to help youth in our area make more of their lives,” Madera explained.

At that time, many young people “were getting into trouble with the law,” so LifeJackets began as a youth-at-risk program.

“But it has changed significantly since then,” and it’s that change Madera wants to emphasize.

“LifeJackets is now open to everyone,” he said, adding the program “has been struggling with its image” because of the history that no longer applies.

A child “doing really well, socially, helps bring other kids’ skills out,” he said.

While the program serves 12- to 15-year-olds, it offers continuity because 15 participants can return as high school mentors for new enrollees.

LifeJackets focuses on improving social skills and conflict resolution, and its name reflects the rural area it serves.

“If you think of life as a river,” Madera said, “and of life jackets holding you up in the water, the idea is to impart skills to help young people navigate better through the rough waters of life.

“We help them see and learn who they are; what their strengths and weaknesses are; help them work in a group and work better in a group through experience, education-based activities.”

Participants are taught to describe an activity, do the activity, ask questions about the activity and learn from doing the activity.

“We have community in our meetings,” Madera said.

“Our ground rules are to respect yourself, others and property.”

During the year they undertake service projects with two focuses: people and the environment.

They can visit nursing homes or senior citizen residences, prepare a meal or sing Christmas carols. The program ends with a canoe expedition where they take everything with them and learn about “life on the trail,” Madera said.

“We call it the ‘final exam’ because they put all the skills they learned into it.”

Madera would like to see all sessions filled, and while he strongly urges any student to join, he does know for young people who may consider themselves on the outside looking in, this program could change their life.

He recalls watching one young man “who considered himself an outcast,” turn his life around, become an honors student and go on to college.

“This young man was able to make connections with kids who became his friends,” Madera said.

“Before that, he had one friend. This helped raise his self-esteem.”

If you want to join LifeJackets, call Madera at 564-0133, ext. 103.

Donations to support LifeJackets are greatly appreciated.

Contributions can be made through UWEM or by sending a check to LifeJackets, c/o The Charlotte White Center, 572 Bangor Road, Dover-Foxcroft 04426.

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OOPS! I had a telephone typo in Friday’s column about David and Kim Walker, the Santa Claus letter-answering helpers who live in Mariaville.

The number to call for information is 610-1494.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

My husband and I are enjoying the holiday with our Midwest family.

My column returns to this section Wednesday, Dec. 1.

Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; javerill@bangordailynews.com; 990-8288.

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