Convening 3 in Cherryfield: What We Learned, and What We’re Counting On

On a cold morning in November, we met with our Aspirations Incubator grantees, including program managers and senior staff from their organizations. Maine Seacoast Mission hosted our gathering, including a sleepover at their community center for some of the participants, and we’re grateful for their hospitality.

This was the third convening of grantees we’ve held since 2017. Don Carpenter, our senior program officer, says, “What excited me was the general sense of commitment to our collective efforts that we’re all making toward loving young people growing up in Maine and helping to raise their aspirations. The power of relationships was on full display, and the programmatic ideas being introduced and discussed was really inspiring.”

Convenings are held twice a year, and they allow us to continue to develop a solid foundation of relationship and trust between all Aspirations Incubator partners, including time to share about challenges and successes. We talked about how team leaders can continue to support programming at the organizational level, discussed the details of program design, and helped program managers develop action plans around the Youth Programming Principles that they still need to develop in order to take their youth development models to scale.   

We also talked about developing a brand identity for the Aspirations Incubator that will help us to share stories and lessons from our work with audiences big and small. In that spirit, we asked our Aspirations Incubator grantees to think ahead to 2023, the moment in time when the first cohort of students is graduating from high school and heading off to the colleges and careers they’ve chosen. We asked them the following questions and they shared with us the following responses:   

What personal qualities will an Aspirations Incubator graduate possess?

Self esteem Self-awareness Happiness
Independence Connectedness A sense that they’re lucky
Empowerment Agency Holding and working toward goals
Resilience Interdependency Leadership
Hopefulness Positivity Empathy
Hard work Honesty Engagement
Caring Competency Generosity
Healthy risk-taking Resourcefulness Good health 
Well informed Able to manage conflict Inclusive

What strengths and abilities will an Aspirations Incubator graduate possess?

Ethic of service Open-mindedness Public speaking
High social and emotional IQ Able to think about the future Decisive
Curiosity Successful in their chosen field Able to mentor and accept mentoring
Aware of the needs of others Empathy Care for the environment
Sense of pride in where they’re from Holding and working toward goals Sense of belonging and ownership in their own lives
Interested in colleges or careers Outdoors and wilderness training Conflict resolution
Mindfulness Facilitation skills Able to accept feedback and criticism
Able to unplug Knowing themselves Good communication skills
Imagination Experience with people from other cultures Self-reflection
Expertise in the state of Maine Able to identify their own strengths Problem solving
Reflection Consensus building Comfortable talking to and working with adults
Able to understand diverse perspectives Comfortable outdoors Involved in the community 

We're looking forward to seeing everything the Aspirations Incubator programs accomplish this year, and to seeing everyone again at our next convening in May! 

Summer Update from the Aspirations Incubator Program

Aspirations Incubator Programs at our eight partner sites are focused on raising the aspirations of young people through the power of positive relationships with peers and adult mentors. Students attend planning meetings and participate in programming that emerges based on their individual interests and needs, and the goals of the group as a whole.

Don Carpenter, our Senior Program Officer, checked in with the Aspirations Incubator Program partners to see what everyone is up to this summer. Here are some of the plans we’re the most excited about:

Kieve-Wavus Education
Kieve-Wavus Leads

Using a group consensus decision making model, the students chose Community Service and Outdoor/Adventure Education as the Kieve-Wavus values they most wanted to pursue this summer. They’re now making plans to do service projects with programs like Graze in Peace, the Twin Villages Foodbank Farm, or Focus on Agriculture in Rural Maine Schools (FARMS). They’re also excited to get outdoors for a trip to the White Mountains in August, which will include a day climbing in North Conway, day hiking Arethusa Falls, a day of service with the Appalachian Mountain Club, and swimming at Emerald Pools. The cohort may also head out to Monhegan Island for a day of hiking and exploring.

Community Bicycle Center

After reviewing the results of his cohort’s Holistic Student Assessment (HSA) data, which is part of how we assess student progress in AIP, Program Manager Woodie noted that two of his students had strengths in an area known as “Action Orientation.” This is defined as “Students who have a tendency and desire to be in their bodies. These students like to be active, exercise; movement is important to them, and they often like working with their hands. These students are quick to take action and they need to move a lot.

Since then, Woodie has focused on finding activities that intrigued these students, but which they’d never had the chance to experience, in order to engage their active, curious minds and bodies in learning. Those students got to try salt water fishing and Frisbee golf for the first time, and they loved it. Other students have shared interests in visiting local skate parks, volunteering at the animal shelter, and hiking. Two of the girls in the T2C cohort are helping Woodie write up a story about a recent trip, and they will be helping him design a new logo for Trek2Connect. The group also hopes to visit the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, and to help out with a river clean-up in September.

The Game Loft
I Know ME

The Game Loft cohort recently spent a fun afternoon at Moose Point State Park in Searsport. Over the course of the program, I Know ME students will visit every state park in Maine and get their state park passports stamped. Earlier this summer, the 7th graders took their first overnight trip to the UMaine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Tanglewood, and they had an end-of-the-year cookout at Swan Lake. This “close to home adventure” was a big success, and helped students develop skills and confidence for future expeditions. In August, they’ll head up north for the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, where they’ll volunteer and enjoy the festival. The group plans to camp out for two nights at Cobscook Bay State Park and explore Rocque Bluffs State Park on their trip back home. 

University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond

The Bryant Pond cohort recently returned from a trip to Acadia National Park and a day paddle down the Androscoggin River. They’re getting excited to welcome Program Manager Lyndsey's baby in early August with an event for their families at her house. She’ll be on maternity leave, but says she plans to be at school for their first day. Lyndsey also has some plans to check in with and make plans with students, including a trip to a local free concert, and some hiking, swimming, and photography at Step Falls Land Preserve.

Seeds of Independence

This summer, Program Manager Michaela is focused on small group work and individual relationship building. She took a group of girls to Popham Beach for the day and says they enjoyed getting to know each other better while swimming, walking, exploring, and building sandcastles. Some of the boys in the program are working on bicycles, and one boy is teaching another to ride a bike. Several students also spend a day volunteering at Graze in Peace, where they enjoyed a tour of the farm. The rest of the summer will be spent kayaking, biking, volunteering, spending time at the beach, and hiking, and Michaela has plans to volunteer with the Kieve-Wavus Leads cohort to learn more about how their program works.


Austin’s cohort at Chewonki is making the most of summer in Maine. So far, they’ve hiked Morse Mountain to the beach, and they visited the Patten Free Library (with a stop for ice cream). In August, they’ll go bowling at Yankee Lanes, and they’re planning to volunteer with Set for Success, which supplies every student in RSU 1 with a backpack and school supplies for the coming school year. The group’s first 8th grade cohort gathering is set for early September, and they’ll kick off the fall with a Chewonki Farm Day on September 8th.

Old Town / Orono YMCA
River Runners 

Program Manager Jessica has been training for her first half marathon, so she recently took a few students to Bangor, where the students helped her shop for new running gear after lunch at a Japanese hibachi. They were excited to see her wearing her new clothes in photos after she successfully completed the race! The cohort also went to a Portland Sea Dogs baseball game, where they were able to get out on the field with the team for photos with Tim Tebow. Jessica reports that the students were starstruck, and their faces lit up when he pointed and waved to them while he was warming up. The cohort is looking forward to some tubing and a camping trip in August, and they’ll do some community service and team-building activities. Jessica’s office hours at the YMCA have been busy this summer—she says that it’s rare for a day to go by without a visit from at least one of her students.

Maine Seacoast Mission

EdGE Journey kicked their summer off with their core trip to Acadia National Park. They camped out for 2 nights and 3 days at Seawall campground. The students participated in community service in the park where they dug/racked the ditches out on one of the park roads and learned about erosion. The students hiked, explored downtown Bar Harbor, and attended the Abbe Museum to learn about the Native American culture of Maine. This summer they will be adventuring twice a week on various trips throughout the summer. The students have gone for a beach day, hiking, and enjoyed kayaking with Mr. Harrington already. EdGE Journey will start its 8th grade year off in September with a trip to the ropes course as its first cohort meeting.

Funding Trekkers Training Institute’s Free Youth Development Training Series

We’re so pleased to announce a second round of funding for the Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development, through a grant of $105,950.

The Trekkers model for mentoring older adolescents is highly effective, relationship-based, and proven to produce positive outcomes for young people by providing mentoring, community engagement, and opportunities that develop and support aspirations. It’s driven by the idea that relationships are critical to keeping youth focused on their college and career goals after high school and to empowering them with the kind of purpose and possibility that help communities to thrive.

The Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation funded the start-up phase of the Trekkers Training Institute (TTI) in 2017. For that first year, TTI trained youth development staff from our Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP) partner organizations. AIP is the Lerner Foundation’s big bet: a six-year, multi-million dollar mentoring pilot program aimed at raising and sustaining the aspirations of students in rural Maine communities.

After attending the Trekkers Training Institute for three months, each of our eight AIP partner organizations is implementing a six-year program model based on Trekkers’ Youth Programming Principles. Our ultimate goal is to bring the successful student outcomes that the Trekkers’ model makes possible to other rural communities across the state.

Over the past year, the Trekkers Training Institute has refined its unique curriculum to meet the professional needs of a wide array of people who work closely with older adolescents. They’re now making those learning opportunities available to practitioners in the fields of youth development, mentoring, and education. A series of free workshops will kick off in July in Rockland and continue into Fall 2018. They’ll cover key elements of the Trekkers philosophy and practice of how to work effectively with youth ages 13 to 18 years old. Register here to participate.

The professional development training and support offered by the Trekkers Training Institute are a cornerstone of the Aspirations Incubator Program. We’re delighted to partner with them to help AIP empower local leaders and other youth advocates, because those mentors and other caring adults play an important role in helping young people to succeed. TTI gives youth development practitioners the tools they need to build strong relationships—and from there, to help students envision clear pathways to opportunities beyond high school.

To stay up to date on the Aspirations Incubator Program, please join our mailing list.

Making a Significant Shift in Funding Priorities

On a cold day in February 2015 at a board retreat on the coast of Maine, the board of directors of the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation made a big decision. After 5 years funding nonprofits in Maine focused on civic engagement, cultural tolerance, and women and children, the board decided to take a break and refocus its mission in a new funding area: raising student aspirations in Maine. 

The space for the foundation to make a significant shift in funding priorities was created by the simplicity of Manny and Polly Lerner's original proposal for the foundation: "to further opportunity for the people of Maine." The direction of the shift was rooted in the day-to-day experience of board chair Eliot Cutler during his independent gubernatorial campaign in 2014. Everywhere he went, he heard about Mainers' concerns for the future of their communities, and, more specifically, concerns about a lack of aspirations among the youth growing up in those communities. 

As the sole staff person at the foundation at the time, I was tasked with researching the landscape around education and student aspirations in Maine, then making a recommendation to the board by the end of 2015. I talked to as many people as I could—teachers, professors, and administrators in K-12 and higher education; nonprofit leaders and program staff who work with youth in school and afterschool; and other funders—about their perception of student aspirations in Maine, the root issues and current challenges, and their proposed solutions. 

In addition to figuring out the right place in the education continuum to nurture student aspirations, the board also wanted to move away from cycle-based, transactional grantmaking, and was interested in exploring opportunities for foundation-initiated, transformational grant making. Over time, a clear path for the Lerner Foundation emerged. 

We identified a space for a small foundation to plug in and make a big bet: investing in the expansion of a unique relationship-focused youth program for rural students that connects with them at the critical moment that aspirations need to be nurtured and supported—in middle school. 

The board opted to develop a pilot project as the vehicle for this investment, and our primary goal for the pilot is to determine the conditions necessary to successfully implement and sustain a long-term mentoring-based youth program model in a rural setting. We chose Trekkers, an outdoor-based mentoring program in midcoast Maine that connects young people with caring adults, as the program model for the pilot project. We were aware of the increased educational outcomes that Trekkers students experience compared to their fellow classmates, and we were intrigued by their unique relationship-focused program model. 

Following a lengthy vetting process that included a statewide RFP in 2016, multiple stages of dialogue, individual concept proposals, and on-site community interviews, the Lerner Foundation developed partnerships with 8 community organizations, each connected to a local school district. We officially launched the Aspirations Incubator Program in April 2017, announcing our partner selections and out intention to invest $4.8 million in grant funding in these partnerships. 

Over the course of the 6-year pilot project, the Lerner Foundation will provide $600,000 in capacity building grants, plus professional development training, technical assistance, and evaluation support to each partner organization, to support the implementation of youth programming rooted in Trekker's 10 Youth Programming Principles at each pilot program site. 

Although we are only eight months into the Aspirations Incubator Program, we know this is our path for the next six years.

The experience of developing and engaging in this pilot project has sharpened our focus as an organization (it is, after all, the only thing we are doing!), allowing us to cultivate deep and complex relationships with our partner organizations, and providing an opportunity to engage in a broader conversation in our state about how to get more Maine students to and through post-secondary education.

We are looking forward to continued learning and engagement alongside our partners, as well as Graduation Day in June 2023 for the 7th graders who will be starting with their AIP cohorts this year!

After spending 15 years in the nonprofit sector, Erin Cinelli has been executive director of the Emanuel and Pauline A Lerner Foundation in Portland, Maine since 2013. She also serves as a grantmaking advisor with the Rocking Moon Foundation. Erin earned a Masters of Public Policy and Management from the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine in 2005, was a 2014 participant in the Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellows Program, and currently serves as the vice chair of the Maine Philanthropy Center board of directors. 

This article was originally posted to Exponent Philanthropy's Blog on December 1, 2017.

Graduation Celebration for AIP Partners

In late August, the Lerner Foundation helped honor eight participants who graduated from the Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development’s first summer immersion training experience.  The graduates are staff members from the eight Maine organizations that were selected in early 2017 to participate in the Foundation’s Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP), a mentoring-based initiative aimed at raising and sustaining the aspirations of middle school and high school students in rural Maine communities and small cities. A celebration to honor each participant’s dedication and commitment to the training experience was held on August 24th at the East Wind Inn in Tenants Harbor.  The graduates were joined at the celebration by members of their families, as well as other stakeholders from their host organizations.


Aspirations Incubator Program staff and Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development staff and supporters celebrate the end of the summer immersion training experience. Photo Credit: Stu Rich.

Aspirations Incubator Program partner organizations are tasked with designing and implementing new youth program models that encourage long-term engagement with students in their communities throughout the course of their adolescence, more specifically in 7th through 12th grades.   To set the AIP partners up for success, all eight organizations selected a newly hired staff person to participate in a three-month summer immersion training hosted in Thomaston, ME at the Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development (TTIYD).  During the 12-week training experience, the participants were introduced to the Trekkers’ 10 Youth Programming Principles, which have been the foundation behind the highly effective, award-winning Trekkers model over the past 24 years. This approach also incorporates the Clover Youth Development Model and tools developed by the PEAR Institute at Harvard University.  The Lerner Foundation believes that the program principles developed by Trekkers, and supported by PEAR, comprise a youth program approach that can be adapted in other rural Maine communities to achieve similarly positive outcomes. 

Each week during the summer immersion training, TTIYD staff introduced the group to one of the 10 Programming Principles and then provided opportunities to experience and witness that principle in practice at Trekkers.  At the end of the summer, each of the eight partners took the knowledge gained from the TTIYD and created a newly designed program model, informed by the Institute, but adapted to each of their own particular missions.  These new youth development models will be implemented in their communities during the 2017-18 school year with the selection of the first cohort of 7th grade participants, and will be fully executed by 2023 when that student cohort completes 12th grade.  A new cohort of 7th grade students will be added each year to build out the program.         

Over the next six years, the Lerner Foundation’s financial support will continue to build organizational capacity and provide professional development for program staff, consulting support for program implementation, assistance with comprehensive program evaluation, and opportunities for peer learning.  These activities will continue through the end of 2023, at which point the outcomes of the program will be shared broadly within the statewide philanthropic and education communities. 

Here are the names of the participants who took part in the summer training experience, and the partner organizations that they each represent – we are looking forward to working closely with this great group of youth program professionals as they implement their programs in the coming years! 

Austin Muir - Chewonki

William Worthley - Community Bicycle Center

Megan Taft - Kieve-Wavus Education

Jessica Dumont - Old Town-Orono YMCA/RSU #34 

Michaela Stone - Seeds of Independence

Briana West - The EdGE program of Maine Seacoast Mission

Stephen Colby - The Game Loft 

Lyndsey Smith - University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond

The summer immersion was the inaugural training experience offered by the Trekkers Training Institute for Youth Development.  The staff at TTIYD is in the process of developing future training opportunities for any youth development professionals who are interested in learning about Trekkers’ 10 Principles of Youth Development.  Additional training opportunities will be available starting in 2018. For more information about the Trekkers Institute, please contact Meredith Lynt at TTIYD: For more information about the Aspirations Incubator Program and our partner organizations, please contact Don Carpenter,


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.

6 Youth Development Strategies for Working in Rural Communities

Throughout 2016, Don Carpenter (Senior Program Officer at the Lerner Foundation) has been traveling around Maine and speaking to leaders in the field of youth development. He learned from their insights about the specific challenges of working effectively with youth in rural Maine communities, and discovered some unique strategies that organizations around the state have developed to creatively address these challenges.  We want to share several youth development strategies that are helping to raise the aspirations of Maine students, and highlight some of the organizations that we are learning from.


1. Due to lack of resources, youth-serving community-based organizations are partnering with public schools.

 Leading by example:  


Seeds of Independence (pictured above) offers the Grit Leadership Initiative, modeled after Epiphany School in Boston. Grit is designed to provide a structured and supportive after-school program for children identified by their schools as most in need of additional support. Seeds of Independence partners with educators, counselors, mentors, and volunteers to help youth set goals and achieve milestones. “We provide at-risk youth with the additional academic oversight and social/emotional support they desperately need to succeed. By providing stable, loving, disciplined, and cooperative environments and programming, we are able get to know our youth, their families, and their academic communities. These connections, in turn, give us keen insights into the multiple struggles they face individually and collectively.” For more information on Seeds of Independence, and their programming, visit  


2. Public schools are partnering with youth-serving community-based organizations to expand horizons outside the classroom and develop a broader base of community support for students.

Leading by Example:  


Bath Middle School (RSU #1) (pictured above) is an Expeditionary Learning School. 6th, 7th, and 8th grade programs offer contextual, nature-based adventure activities outside the walls of the classroom to provide a deeper learning opportunity for students. Each year, students participate in different community-based activities, week-long residential programs at the Ecology School, and week-long expeditionary canoe trips led by Chewonki. “Each tier of our adventure-based middle school experiences guides students to realize the positive effects of working in the service of others. Whether it’s a beach cleanup, learning minimum impact camping practices, collecting data on invasive species, organizing a community meal, or doing trail construction, students’ look outside themselves because of the experiences we provide them.” For more information on Bath Middle School and their programs, visit


Mountain Valley Middle School (pictured above) built experiential learning opportunities into their programming so that students have strong foundations for high school and life. Mountain Valley takes a community approach to addressing the challenges that students face in rural Maine, and as a school they celebrate their collective successes achieving that goal.  “We use data to create individual plans [for students] that provide extension or intervention in academics and behavior reformation. We use the data to track student attendance and work with community groups to encourage students to consistently attend school…Five years ago, our average daily attendance was below 88%. We have worked hard to encourage students to attend school. Over the last five years we have raised our average daily attendance to 94%. This year, we are currently at 98% and rising. We are proud of our students!” For more information on the great work Mountain Valley Middle School is doing, visit /mountainvalleymiddleshcool/.


3. In response to the family income-based achievement gap present in many rural schools, there is increased focus on fostering social and emotional development and building nurturing relationships as critical components of increasing academic achievement.   

Leading by Example:  


The Game Loft (pictured above) encourages youth to make their own decisions by engaging with each other and with adults through non-electronic games. Game Loft believes that “academic success seldom happens in a bubble.” Through the Circles of Care program a youth becomes the “president” of his or her “board of directors.” The board is made up of staff, volunteers and community members who focus on the student’s strengths and interests to help the student as a whole person. “Sometimes value and support comes from the family or other supports in the community, but when those are absent or inadequate, new supports must be created. A young person entering the Game Loft finds a system of adults and peers who share common interests, support each other, and learn new skills together.” Through the Circle of Care program, volunteers have helped youth get housing, attend events, become advocates at school, return to and graduate from school, build lasting and meaningful relationships in the community, and become leaders in achieving their own success. As a community, youth come together to help each other, and in turn themselves. For more information about the programming that Game Loft offers, visit



4.  Youth-serving organizations are using peer mentors to help raise the aspirations of younger students in rural communities.

Leading by Example:


Lubec Community Outreach Center (pictured above) knows the children within the community personally, and that allows them to meet kids where they are and assist in their development in meaningful ways. Because of this, kids are both included and trust the staff and volunteers at a young age. Youth come back to be hired as staff in the summer program. That opportunity provides youth with the opportunity to mentor younger kids in the program while reinforcing leadership and life skills that they have learned. “This year we instituted our first scholarship for a young man that has worked in our summer program for three years. The first year he was shy, quiet, and unsure of his own ability to impact. This year he was a leader as we watched him mentor the younger staff and the children. As he drove away to attend college for the first time in another part of the State he did so with a little bit more money from the scholarship, which is now named after him, but more importantly, he did so knowing that he had made a difference.” For more information on Lubec Outreach, and their programming, visit


5. More Experience Needed! Some community organizations and schools are complementing traditional education by focusing on entrepreneurial opportunities to raise post-secondary aspirations.

Leading by Example:


Harpswell Coastal Academy (pictured above) is a charter school where the learning process takes place in and out of the classroom. Students spend a lot of time out in the field, visiting factories, businesses and farmlands, in order to help youth to identifying and addressing community-based problems. "We have found that our students respond well to hands-on, place-based education, which involves adult mentors and guides. ...when students have opportunities to connect in a meaningful way, especially with professionals, their learning takes on a whole new meaning and their level of engagement—and hence aspiration—increases significantly." Recently, the Town of Harpswell has partnered with HCA to have students help track and measure tides. The project is meant to study the impact that global warming will have on road beds and property close to the ocean. The real life experience places youth at the front lines of a community issue and gives them not only hands-on experience, but "the opportunity to learn and explore in a contextual manner, and experience success at a level that matters to them." For more information on Harpswell Coastal Academy and their programing, please visit

6. Organizations that once may have employed broad-based, “one and done” programs are shifting their program delivery systems towards multi-year, deep-impact youth development models.

Leading by Example:  


Trekkers (pictured above) has developed a six-year mentoring program that follows students from 7th grade through 12th grade. We believe that this long-term, committed, flexible and developmentally appropriate approach to raising aspirations has been the key to our deep impact.” Trekkers is able to do this through their programs, which emphasize trust, and meeting students where they are at in their lives. 83% of students who start the program in 7th grade stay with the program through graduation. Once students reach 11th grade, the have the opportunity to become a peer leader, where they participate in leadership trainings, commit to remaining drug and alcohol free during high school, and volunteer with younger students. “The young people we serve recognize the life-changing impact our program has had on them throughout the years, before they even graduate from high school, and want to be there to help younger students navigate adolescence on the same six-year journey.” For more information about Trekkers and their programming, visit


Key lessons learned…

Don’s listening tour has also helped shape the Lerner Foundation’s new strategic grantmaking activities. From the insights gained during the tour, Don identified four key lessons which the Foundation is incorporating into its new Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP). 

1.  There is a deep need to build and maintain youth programming models to engage young people beyond the middle school years. 

2.  There is a need for caring adults to offer consistent outreach and become “Relationship Routers” during the 8th – 9th grade transition to keep students focused on pathways to higher education and post-secondary careers.

3.  When it comes to program delivery models, developmental stages matter.

4.  There is a need for more training in social and emotional development to help implement targeted prevention, intervention and promotion strategies in youth development programming. 

Stay tuned for more news about the Aspirations Incubator Program in early 2017!

Read more

July Update

Many exciting things have been happening here at the Foundation since the start of 2016.  First, we kicked off the year in January by announcing our new funding priority focused on raising the post-secondary aspirations of middle school students growing up in rural Maine.  We also announced a request for proposals from organizations around the state that are working with middle school students in creative and effective ways to nurture and develop aspirations, with the intention of learning about and highlighting both leaders in the field and emerging organizations or programs. 

In February, we hired Don Carpenter to be our new Senior Program Officer.  Don’s first task was to take part in a four month landscape scan to gain a deeper understanding of what is currently happening in rural communities to help raise aspirations for middle school students.  The information gathered through over 40 conversations with youth development organizations, community leaders, educators, and youth advocates, along with the inspiring proposals from the rich pool of applicants to our RFP, and Don’s extensive background in youth development as the founder of the Trekkers model, have all informed the development of a new grantmaking initiative at the Foundation called the Aspirations Incubator Program. 


Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP):

The AIP is built around 10 Youth Programming Principles, which were shaped by Trekkers as they built a comprehensive youth development program model that leads to excellent outcomes for participants (93% graduate from high school, compared to 78% of peers, and 72% go on to college, compared to 61% of peers).  Through the AIP, the Lerner Foundation will focus on building partnerships with several youth development organizations based in rural Maine communities, with a goal of developing both organizational and leadership capacity within each organization to implement comprehensive youth development program models rooted in the 10 Youth Programming Principles.  To provide leadership and professional training for our partner organizations, the Lerner Foundation hopes to support the creation of a training institute, where youth development professionals will be able to learn about the 10 Principles and how to incorporate or adapt them into their own programming and activities.  At a broader level, the Lerner Foundation will also encourage and support dialogue about a comprehensive statewide approach to getting Maine students to and through post-secondary education.  

The AIP will be the primary focus for all Lerner Foundation activities from 2016 through 2020.  To this end, the Foundation has completed a five-year strategic plan that will guide the Foundation’s grantmaking, network-building, and communications activities through the end of 2020.


Trekkers’ 10 Youth Programming Principles:

1)   Going Beyond “One and Done”

2)   Applying Holistic Youth Development Practices

3)   Utilizing Data to Inform Programming

4)   Creating a Community Support Network

5)   Developing Local Leadership

6)   Expanding World Views

7)   Meeting Students Where They Are

8)   Providing Platforms to “Name, Know, and Nourish”

9)   Embracing Student Driven Learning

10) Encouraging Civic Responsibility


2016 Request for Proposals:

In conjunction with developing the 5-year plan for the Aspirations Incubator Program, we spent April and May reviewing proposals from 27 final applicants in our RFP process.   The final applicants were selected from an initial pool of 81 candidates who responded to our request for proposals that outlined the following priorities for youth program models:

  • Positive youth development that integrates both prevention and intervention strategies
  • Multi-year mentoring activities – community or school-based
  • Fostering social/emotional learning and resiliency asset building
  • Encouraging higher education & career exploration
  • Utilizing evaluation data to inform programming

In reviewing the final applications, we realized that the breadth and depth of programming across the state varied widely, and we had a range of different types of organizations that applied, so we developed 4 categories for grant awards.  Following is a description of the categories and the grants awarded within each category:

Leaders in the Field - $10,000 grants to organizations with established youth programs that rise to the top, and serve as inspirational examples of effective, evidence-based program models focused on raising the aspirations of middle school students.

  • Community Bicycle Center
  • Maine Robotics
  • Maine Seacoast Mission – EdGE Program
  • The Game Loft
  • The Telling Room
  • Tree Street Youth
  • University of New England – Office of Citizenship & Civic Engagement

Promise and Potential - $5,000 grants to organizations with programs for middle school students that have been in place for 1-3 years, are rooted within a solid organizational structure, and utilize a developmentally appropriate program model to effectively focus on raising the aspirations of middle school students.

  • Lubec Community Outreach Center
  • Maine Academy of Modern Music – Machias Program
  • Seeds of Independence

Seed Investment - $5,000 grants to solid youth-serving organizations that are proposing a new, innovative, well-researched, and well-designed program focused on raising the aspirations of middle school students.

  • Harpswell Coastal Academy – Propeller Program
  • Herring Gut Learning Center – Alumni Mentoring Program
  • Island Institute – Middle School Teaching and Learning Collaborative Expansion

Strong Schools - $5,000 grants to middle schools that are taking an innovative, student-centered approach to working with students to raise aspirations and support students academically, emotionally, and behaviorally in the school setting, while also connecting with community resources in an effective way to broaden support for student needs during out-of-school time.

  • Maine School Administrative District #44:  Telstar Middle School
  • Regional School Unit #1:  FLOW Program
  • Regional School Unit #10:  Mountain Valley Middle School


Next Steps:

In the coming months, we will be exploring partnership possibilities with several youth-serving organizations in rural Maine, developing opportunities for leadership training around the 10 Youth Programming Principles, and encouraging dialogue among our colleagues and networks about creating a comprehensive plan for getting Maine students to and through postsecondary education.

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