Announcing the Launch of the Aspirations Incubator Program


The Lerner Foundation was established in 2009, in memory of Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner, philanthropists and owners of a successful business in the Washington, D.C. area.  Mr. and Mrs. Lerner loved Maine, and they were frequent visitors to the state. The Lerners believed deeply in the importance of equal opportunity and social mobility, and the Foundation, through its grant making activities, is dedicated to furthering opportunities for the people of Maine. 

In January 2016, following several years of making grants to a wide array of organizations throughout Maine, the Foundation announced the decision to focus its resources on raising the aspirations of middle school students in rural Maine.  This change in grantmaking focus was informed by a year of research, planning, and partnership development by the Foundation’s board and staff.  Of particular interest to the Foundation were youth development program models that incorporate mentoring as a central component to program activities, such as Trekkers.  Over the past 23 years, Trekkers’ award-winning youth development model has positively impacted hundreds of students growing up in the small fishing communities of mid-coast Maine. 


Launching the Aspirations Incubator Program:

Following a landscape scan to gain a deeper understanding of what efforts were taking place in rural communities to help raise aspirations for middle school students, and a nine-month process of identifying and vetting potential nonprofit partners from around the state, the Lerner Foundation is pleased to officially launch its new grantmaking initiative - the Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP).  Starting immediately, the Lerner Foundation will commit significant funds to support the AIP, in addition to directing staff, administrative, and board resources towards implementing a 6-year plan built around the AIP’s vision and strategies.  AIP activities will continue through the end of 2023, at which point the outcomes of the initiative will be shared widely.

About the Aspirations Incubator Program:

The Lerner Foundation’s vision for the Aspirations Incubator Program is to incubate comprehensive mentoring-based pilot programs for youth in eight rural communities and small cities in Maine, with the intention of sharing the outcomes of this funding investment with philanthropic, youth development, and education communities.  

Our primary strategy to achieve the vision of the AIP is to cultivate leadership development in Maine by supporting long-term strategic partnerships in a variety of small communities.  Each AIP partnership consists of a community-based youth serving organization that has selected a school district to work with over the course of the AIP initiative.  The community organization and the associated school will commit to developing and implementing a multi-year pilot program serving local youth, starting in middle school and continuing into high school.  The Lerner Foundation will provide funding to the community organization for capacity-building, as well as professional and leadership development training to partner program staff, consulting support for program implementation, assistance with incorporating comprehensive program evaluation, and opportunities for peer learning. 

The Aspirations Incubator Program partner organizations and associated school districts are:

Chewonki/RSU #1 - Chewonki is a school and camp based in Wiscasset that inspires transformative growth, teaches appreciation and stewardship of the natural world, and challenges people to build thriving, sustainable communities throughout their lives. RSU #1 serves Arrowsic, Bath, Woolwich, Phippsburg, and surrounding communities.

Community Bicycle Center/Biddeford School Department - The Community Bicycle Center in Biddeford is a free, year-round youth program that provides kids of all backgrounds with a safe place to connect with caring adults through bike rides and repairs.

Kieve-Wavus Education/AOS #93Kieve-Wavus Education, based in Nobleboro, is committed to empowering people to contribute positively to society by promoting the values of kindness, respect for others, and environmental stewardship through year-round experiential programs, camps for youth and adults, and guidance from inspirational role models.  AOS #93 and Lincoln Academy serves the Lincoln County towns of Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro, and South Bristol.

Old Town-Orono YMCA/RSU #34 - The Old Town-Orono YMCA is a community centered organization that serves all ages by promoting healthy living, nurturing the potential of every individual and family, and fostering social responsibility. RSU #34 serves Alton, Bradley and Old Town in Penobscot County. 

Seeds of Independence/Topsham School Department - Seeds of Independence provides youth and teens ages 11-18 with peer and community mentors to reinforce self-worth, good decision making, and healthy lifestyle choices in order to become independent, productive members of our world. 

The EdGE program of Maine Seacoast Mission/SAD #37 - The Maine Seacoast Mission founded the EdGE program in 2002. Through after-school, in-school, and summer programs, EdGE offers children from Gouldsboro to Machias the opportunity to challenge themselves, engage with their communities and the outdoors, and explore college and career options. SAD #37 serves the Washington County communities of Addison, Columbia, Columbia Falls, Harrington, and Milbridge.

The Game Loft/RSU #3 - The Game Loft, based in Belfast, promotes positive youth development through non-electronic games and community involvement. RSU #3 serves the Waldo County towns of Brooks, Freedom, Jackson, Knox, Liberty, Monroe, Montville, Thorndike, Troy, Unity and Waldo.

University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond/SAD #44 - The University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond is dedicated to helping young people reach their fullest potential through affordable hands-on learning in the outdoors, in the classroom, and beyond.  SAD #44 serves the Oxford County towns of Andover, Bethel, Gilead, Greenwood, Newry, and Woodstock.


The Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development:

In addition to investing in the AIP community partnerships, the Lerner Foundation also is funding the creation of the Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development, which will provide the leadership development component of the AIP program.  The Institute will offer training modules focused on its 10 Youth Programming Principles, as well as provide AIP partners a full immersion training experience working within the Trekkers organization.  They will get to see the 10 Principles in action, and consider how to incorporate or adapt the 10 Principles into their own programming and activities.  Each of the eight AIP partner organizations will send a staff person to the inaugural immersion training experience, which is slated to begin in June 2017.  Starting in 2018, the Trekkers Institute will open its training opportunities to other practitioners in the fields of youth development, mentoring, and education.

Trekkers’ 10 Youth Programming Principles:

1.     Designing Intentional Program Delivery Systems for Long Term Engagement – A commitment to creating small, purposeful learning communities and designing a multi-year, “step-ladder” program delivery system that works with students during middle school and follows them to and through high school graduation. This long-term commitment to relationship building allows for the time and space needed to adapt to the ever-changing developmental needs and interests of adolescents.     

2.     Developing a Skilled Network of Caring Adults and Peer Mentors – A focus on recruiting and training caring adult volunteers and cross-age mentors (young leaders) to play a critical role in meeting the relational needs of local youth growing up in their community. 

3.     Applying a Comprehensive Approach to Youth Development Strategies – A dedication to building targeted holistic youth development methods into the overall program design to help young people find success and navigate challenges during adolescence by focusing on proven promotion, prevention and intervention strategies. 

4.     Creating Circles of Care – A practice of assembling support networks for young people by partnering with parents, schools, key stakeholders, health services, and other youth advocate agencies, with the goal of building high-level supports to assist in meeting the academic and non-academic needs of students. 

5.     Prioritizing Informal Relationship Building with Youth – A commitment to “showing up” and being present in the lives of young people outside of regular scheduled programming.  By designing outreach in the community into the overall program delivery model, staff and caring adult mentors can build even stronger relationships with mentees and maintain relational links to students even when core programs are not in session. 

6.     Expanding Worldviews – A priority for introducing students – through outdoor, experiential and travel-based educational opportunities – to the diversity of people, cultures, places and natural resources that exist outside the reach of their everyday lives. 

7.     Embracing Student Voice & Choice – A willingness to share power and give young people input into the overall educational process. 

8.     Encouraging Civic Responsibility – A desire to incorporate service into curriculum design and a commitment to enhance civil discourse.

9.     Preparing Students for Success after High School – A focus on increasing opportunities for youth to identify, explore, and cultivate their future aspirations – whether those aspirations include immediate entry into the workforce or ambitions for college – through hands-on experiences. 

10.   Utilizing Validated Assessment Tools to Promote Social-Emotional Development in Young People - An emphasis on collecting social-emotional development and resiliency data as a way to inform individual intervention strategies and influence programming – all with the intention of better detecting barriers to academic achievement in students at an early age.


Evaluation Components of the Aspirations Incubator Program:


The PEAR Institute – AIP Partner Program Evaluation  

The Lerner Foundation has partnered with The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience, a joint initiative of Harvard University and McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA to achieve its youth development goals. AIP partners will be provided with an in-depth introduction The PEAR Institute’s youth development framework, The Clover Model, during the summer immersion at the Trekkers Institute for Youth Development. This framework integrates research, theory, and practice and focuses on young people’s growth at different points of adolescence. The model is used by youth-serving organizations across the country to build lasting connections between youth development, school reform, and mental health. All AIP partners will be trained in the use of PEAR’s Holistic Student Assessment (HSA) – a data-driven tool based on the Clover Model that measures social and emotional development in school and after school settings. The data collected by the HSA will be used to inform decision-making around potential interventions to increase social-emotional skills (e.g., critical thinking, perseverance, teamwork). The PEAR Institute will play a key role in helping AIP partners become proactive and preventative, rather than reactive and crisis-driven.  

Data Innovation Project – Independent Evaluator

The Lerner Foundation has contracted with the Data Innovation Project (DIP), housed at the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine, to provide an independent evaluation of the Aspirations Incubator Program over the course of the 6-year initiative.  A sustainable future for the AIP programming is contingent on both the demonstrable success and replicability of the program implementation in general, as well as the model’s ability to demonstrate promising results (i.e., short- and medium-term outcomes).  The DIP will conduct a formative evaluation that employs a mixed method approach, using both qualitative and quantitative analyses to answer evaluation questions, including key informant interviews, focus groups, observations, program records, a fidelity checklist, extract of the Holistic Student Assessment (HSA) results, and a supplemental youth survey. 



Collectively, the eight AIP partnerships represent 39 rural towns and small cities in Maine, and most of the communities have an average population of less than 2,000 residents.  We believe that partnering closely with key stakeholders in these communities who are interested in developing leadership and program implementation skills, then applying those new skills to local youth programs, will foster the development of strong social and emotional support networks for youth program participants.  We hope that increased resiliency and access to social capital, along with an expanded sense of opportunity, will spark and nurture higher aspirations for the students growing up outside the urban centers of the state.  We expect the independently-evaluated outcomes of the Aspirations Incubator Program to launch a conversation about effective youth development and post-secondary attainment program models for rural Maine communities, as well as encouraging additional philanthropic investment in the fields of education and youth development in Maine.

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