Sociologist Betty Robinson, at right with Fatumo Mohamed, volunteers at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston. She first came to Maine to attend Colby College and learned about MaineCF when she served as academic partner on a social capital study the foundation conducted with Robert Putnam in Lewiston. An Auburn resident, she joined the MaineCF board in 2004. Photo: Thalassa Raasch/MaineCF

You served on the MaineCF Board of Directors and now you’re a member of the Androscoggin County Committee. How has your experience with MaineCF impacted your ideas about giving?

Working with MaineCF necessitates reflection on one’s own philosophy of giving, while also providing the opportunity to learn more about having a real impact versus simply feeling that a donation or gift is the right thing to do. Certainly, the experience helped me better understand what the broader philanthropic picture is in Maine.

While we share the challenges of many poor, rural states, we also have so many nonprofits that participate in innovative ways to help Maine people move forward, become more healthy or safe, and achieve goals. Through the foundation, I’ve also met many different folks whose perspectives and knowledge enhanced my own giving choices, both in terms of dollars and time.

How did your connection with Julia Sleeper and Tree Street Youth develop?

Julia Sleeper [Tree Street Youth co-founder] was a graduate student of mine at the end of my career with the University of Southern Maine. Her research was based on her numerous years of volunteering in the Lewiston downtown area, particularly with refugee families. Through her, I learned much more about the many challenges facing these refugees and other local youth.

I’d already been drawn in by the excitement of the new immigration and sought connections through immigrant students beginning to attend Lewiston-Auburn College. I’d also taken a diverse group of students, including students from Somalia and Zimbabwe, to Botswana and South Africa for study abroad. Through these experiences in addition to my participation in the International Leadership Association and general reading, I realized that globalization was coming right to my “backyard”! And I knew that Julia’s vision of a place to support diverse youth and their families was just what the L-A community needed.

Since I was considering phased retirement from USM anyway, working to support Julia in realizing her vision seemed like a perfect next step. In less than a year after Tree Street Youth’s founding, I agreed to chair its board of directors. Given that my academic work was in organizations and leadership development, I felt I could offer support in organization building and expanding the volunteer pool with other folks who brought a wide array of skills to the amazing efforts of Julia and her co-founder Kim Sullivan. They figured out the right services and culture for Tree, while we helped develop the underpinnings. 

I served as board chair for four years, then stepped into the role of chairing our first capital campaign. Now, I just serve on the board and board committees and volunteer one afternoon a week in BRANCHES (Becoming Responsible Adults 'N Cultivating Higher Education Success), the college and career prep program.

Why have you supported this organization?

So many reasons!  It’s the right time in my life to support younger folks in realizing their visions. I thoroughly enjoy my active follower role and seeing how quickly young people step up to the plate and grow. Their achievements delight me.

Then, I believe that worldwide immigration will continue as long as wars and environmental degradation continue. People everywhere seek safety and opportunity for their families. This is a global phenomenon. And it so happens that Maine really needs the immigration of younger people as our current population is aging and reproduction rates are too low to replace deaths. We face a demographic crisis if we can’t bring more people to our state and help them succeed.

The diversity that immigrant youth brings to our community enriches the social and economic fabric of our lives. It makes our cities more attractive to American born youth as well. Young people all over the country and world today expect to live in more diverse environments that offer more choices and more interesting things to do.

But once here, these youth and many other low-income youth who have been passed by for any number of reasons, need support in order to be successful. We need them to succeed to build the future of our communities and economy. So I believe that in supporting them, I support my community. And, as I said before, I personally get great pleasure from seeing youth move forward.

Finally, at Tree Street, I see energy, passion, commitment, creativity, and success. Julia and her staff have found or developed “the special sauce” that works with youth and their many challenges. The focus on building close relationships between and among every Tree stakeholder provides the fuel that drives everyone touched by this organization to levels they didn’t realize they could achieve. A wonderful thing to witness! 

I feel lucky to have stumbled upon Tree Street Youth when I did. It gives me meaningful activity in my retirement, new relationships with folks I might otherwise never meet, and a place to feel optimistic. Tree Street always makes me smile.