BRUNSWICK, Maine — When 15-year-old Travis Oppenheimer was charged earlier this year with disorderly conduct and trespassing, Willo Wright stood in the courtroom and convinced the judge to sentence him to the Seeds of Independence Rebound program rather than a year’s probation.
Each Tuesday for 12 weeks, Oppenheimer attends sessions on topics such as anger management, decision-making and goal setting. The teen works with a mentor outside the group as part of the alternative sentencing program.
Kaitlyn Buckingham, 19, takes her 7-month-old son Elliott to a youth parenting group that, like Rebound, is run by Seeds of Independence, a nonprofit organization that supports teens who have been arrested, struggle in school or are young mothers needing a helping hand.
Seeds of Independence is designed “to grab kids that are in dire straights and find different resources for them,” Wright said. “Our programs these days are springboards for the depth and breadth kids need.”
Wright founded the program with her husband Tom Wright, who serves as executive director. The couple also run Jumpstart, an alternative sentencing program for first-time, nonviolent juvenile offenders. They hold mentoring programs in high schools and reach out to imprisoned youth at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.
Seeds of Independence is slated to move into its new home at Brunswick Landing, formerly Brunswick Naval Air Station, later this month. The nonprofit will join 24 businesses and organizations including Kestrel Aeroworks and Molnlycke Health Care. Tom Wright said he hopes to lease space in the 10,000-square-foot building to a social worker, a probation officer and a substance abuse program to create “a resource center for kids.”
Commercial real estate developer C.J. Dirago, 26, from Topsham, is a graduate of the Jumpstart program. He mentors teens like 14-year-old Devon McPhail of Brunswick, a good kid who went down the wrong path. That’s something Dirago can relate to.
“I had a lot going for me, and on the surface, everything was great,” Dirago said. “But I tell people I think every kid is at risk.”
To Dirago, such programs are a godsend. “When you’re 16, you’re not often taking a minute to think about what you’re doing and the implications of what you’re doing,” he said.
On a recent Sunday, McPhail got a chance to do just that.
As part of the Rebound program, McPhail and other teens worked with Dirago to clean up fields behind a home in Brunswick. The owner paid the group $100 an hour, which they will put toward a sailing trip in June.
The project gave McPhail a chance to reflect. “I know what I’ve done is wrong,” he said, shrugging and peering out under long bangs.
The program is working for him already, as McPhail landed a summer job landscaping for the homeowner.
Companies like Wild Oats Bakery & Cafe have hired teens through Seeds of Independence. Teens start out as interns and sometimes move on to become full-time employees. Shepherd said she’s encouraged by the growth she sees in their work ethic, communication and confidence.
Local law enforcement agencies have taken note.
Students in the program show “remarkable changes” after going through Jumpstart and Rebound said Freeport Police Lt. Susan Nourse, a Seeds of Independence board member who works with Jumpstart.
“It takes first-time offenders and just redirects them,” Nourse said. “They don’t need to go to court. They just need an extra set of eyes and ears.”
So many teens are in trouble and the region has essentially “abdicated its role” in raising its children, relying on schools and the judicial system, said Tom Wright.
“But those organizations have admitted they can’t deal with those kids,” he said. “We’re getting more and more separated from these kids who have absolutely no opportunity.”
In past years, a sentencing program run by Judge Joe Field of the West Bath District Court, the “Wednesday afternoon club,” brought parents and probation officers together to discuss teens in the juvenile justice program. But funding was cut over a year ago.
“A judge could say, as happened not too long ago, ‘You go to rehab or you go to jail.’ Well, the girl lives in Bath and rehab’s in South Portland. She has no transportation and her family wasn’t going to give her any transportation,” said Tom Wright.
The Wrights aim to counter that by creating a safe environment at Brunswick Landing.
“Instead of saying, ‘You need to go to South Portland (for rehab),’ we can take them by the shoulders,” and help, said Tom Wright.