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Maine CDFI Helps Youth Nonprofit Plant Roots

The 10-year-old youth empowerment organization practices radical accessibility — starting with its Lewiston facility. 

By Hadassah Patterson

Julia Sleeper-Whiting celebrated an anniversary recently. This past summer marked 10 years of running the Tree Street Youth — a Lewiston, Maine, youth empowerment organization the Bangor native describes as a place where “they can bring their dreams to life.”

The center came about as Sleeper-Whiting worked with local immigrant populations in the English Language Learning program during undergraduate studies at Lewiston-based Bates College. She and Bates alumni friend Kim Sullivan expanded their community service to assist local kids with homework help and tutoring. After Sleeper-Whiting completed her masters at University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College they co-founded Tree Street Youth in the summer of 2011 with the mission of serving as a summer camp for the same children they’d assisted during the school year. That’s when the real journey began.

“In the early years, the greatest challenge was building the organization itself,” Sleeper-Whiting says. “When we first started, we wanted to create a place for kids to come together and hang out. But the concepts of how to build a nonprofit, how to run a business, those infrastructures we had to build from scratch, without a lot of prior knowledge base.”

On the programming side, Sleeper-Whiting says the hardest part has been seeing the struggles her students face. “You never want to become desensitized to the adversity that a lot of students face, you know?” she says. 

Forming the program, however, was just the beginning. As time progressed, they needed a permanent structure to call home, and that brought a new hurdle. 

“That was kind of miraculous actually,” Sleeper-Whiting says. “I’d googled ‘nonprofits buy buildings’ and the Genesis Fund came up. But later, we met at an event I wasn’t even supposed to be at. It was a workshop held at a bank about CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) credits, and I wanted to learn more about how they make a contribution.” 

As it happens, Bill Floyd, the executive director of CDFI Genesis Fund was attending the workshop. “He probably thought I was a little bit crazy and dreaming big,” she says.

Floyd went to visit them at the center shortly after, and Sleeper-Whiting told him about their vision to purchase the building the owners were selling and build out a facility. 

“We had no money,” Sleeper-Whiting says. “And he was there with me in this really hot room in the middle of summer with kids screaming all around us at summer camp, and he was like. ‘You'll own this building within a year.’  And I was like, ‘I  don't know if I believe you.’ And he said, ‘No, no you're going to own this building within a year.’ And he kept his word. We worked collaboratively with him to purchase the facility.” 

The building needed some heavy renovations. The Genesis Fund was also able to provide bridge lending while they were waiting on philanthropic pledges to come in.

Ten years later, they paid off the mortgage with the Genesis Fund. “And we have a giant, amazing, 12,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility for the kids. Which all started with us purchasing it in 2014.”

Liza Fleming-Ives is now the executive director of Genesis Fund, and worked with them during the early stages of their development. 

“They were a fairly new organization and had just moved out of a basement space in the community into their own space, and so she (Sleeper-Whiting) knew another move would be disruptive, and their location right across from the school was really important to the ease of access for kids and for families,” Fleming-Ives says.

The Genesis Fund helped her put a forecast budget together to purchase the building, talked with her about the possibility of making a loan, and looked at the feasibility of her raising the funds to pay it back over time if they offered a bridge loan. That loan helped Tree Street purchase their building, and gave Sleeper-Whiting time to fundraise and apply for grants, with the Genesis Fund’s help. She was able to raise almost all of the funds from individual donors. 

Now the modern space includes outdoor space and two different wings — one for younger children and one for older children — as well as space to grow along with program.

The Tree Street Youth Center location is right across from an elementary school and in walking distance from the middle school, so many of the kids who attend the programs after school live directly in the community with their families nearby.

“This is a great example of how we work with community organizations.” Fleming-Ives says.  “Oftentimes we find partners that are operating very effective programs needing to think about their space in a different way. We get involved in the early stages of helping to work through the feasibility of a plan. We help bring resources together to make it successful.”

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.