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Patricia Estabrook of Belfast is the co-founding director of The Game Loft and I Know ME.
Of all the natural resources we value in Maine, none is more important than our young people. The youth of today will be our future doctors, teachers, lawyers, congressional leaders, business people and visionaries.
Maine people are known for their common sense, perseverance and character. I hope that one of our young people will become the world leader who will guide us out of today’s strife and conflicts. Who will that expert be if our youth fail to rise to the challenges of Maine’s workforce and society? Who will be there for us if our youth do not rise to the challenges of Maine’s future?
Ask any pre-school child about what they want to be when they grow up and all will say they want to be teachers, doctors, nurses or astronauts, all worthy careers, all of which require higher education, dedication and perseverance. Yet too few of Maine’s rural high school students seek post-secondary education and training and less than 32 percent of Maine residents 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree.
So how do we support young people to develop the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve their aspirations? Numerous studies have proven that youth who are mentored in a consistent and long-term manner have greater success than those who lack mentor support.
Mentors provide structure and insight to help young people form and raise aspirations and find the resources to help them achieve those goals. While planting the seeds of success is important, it is not enough. Mentoring nurtures young people and helps them find direction and resilience. Additionally, almost 121,000 Maine adults — about 11 percent of the adult population — started post-secondary education but did not complete a degree or certification.
Preserving and enriching the natural resource of our youth is the challenge that was taken up by the Lerner Foundation in 2016. The Lerner Foundation has donated more than $8 million to the goal of raising the aspirations of students in Maine.
The Game Loft created the I Know ME program that works with students in grades 7-12 to raise aspirations through healthy relationships, mentoring, field trips and a six-year exploration of the state of Maine. Over six years students learn about the people, places, geography, geology, economy, history, challenges and potential of their state. They also focus on self-knowledge that will help them set lofty goals and achieve high standards of academic and behavioral success.
The Data Innovation Project at the University of Southern Maine has provided evaluation of the six Aspirations Incubators programs since its inception. Here are some of their findings from the first three years and sampling 250 students: 93 percent said that the program helped them feel connected to their community. More than 70 percent showed positive growth in learning and school engagement, 95 percent reported that the program helped them experience new places and accept people who are different from them, and 70 percent reported greater resiliency. The project also found that 99 percent of 8th graders in the programs believe they will complete high school and 88 percent believe that they will gain a post-secondary degree while 93 percent said that the program helped them feel connected to the community.
When “Timmy” joined the I Know ME program three years ago, he was afraid to travel away from home or to speak with adults. Recently he said, “I love traveling and meeting new people. When I become a meteorologist I could be stationed anywhere in the world but I always want to come home to Maine.”
Our lives and our futures depend on the young people of Maine like “Timmy.” Raising and supporting their aspirations will pay huge dividends in the future of our state.