Penobscot Club Provides Safe Haven for Micmac Youth

All programming at the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club is vetted by its cultural department to align with Micmac culture.

All programming at the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club is vetted by its cultural department to align with Micmac culture.

Through the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club (PBGC) in Maine, kids have a place to belong, where positive influences, role models and activities keep them on track for a bright future.

“We’re fun-based but we’re prevention-based,” says PBGC Program Coordinator Fenton Jones. “We want to be a safe haven where kids can find safe, healthy things to do.”

Indeed, youth programming is a need in the community, which Jones says has been hit hard by the drug and opioid crisis. The PBGC strives to meet this need by promoting the Micmac tradition and culture and providing an educational foundation and experience.

Now, with new funding from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) made possible through RISE for Boys and Men of Color, the PBGC is building capacity and expanding outreach to have an even greater effect. RISE for Boys and Men of Color is a project co-led by Equal Measure, a national nonprofit evaluation and philanthropic services firm, and the University of Southern California (USC), Rossier School of Education, USC Race and Equity Center. RISE for Boys and Men of Color is a field advancement effort that aims to better understand and strategically improve the lives, experiences and outcomes of boys and men of color in the United States. RISE spans five fields (education, health, human services and social policy, juvenile and criminal justice, and workforce development) and focuses on four populations (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans).

About the Club

Cultural Director John Dennis teaches regular language classes at the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club.

Cultural Director John Dennis teaches regular language classes at the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club.

Founded in 1995, the PBGC is the umbrella organization for three Boys & Girls Clubs in Maine – the Maliseet Boys & Girls Club, Sipayik Boys & Girls Club, and Boys & Girls Club of Presque Isle. The PBGC was the first Native American Boys & Girls Club to be established in the Northeast region of the United States. While today the organization overall serves more than 240 kids, both Native and non-Native, the Boys & Girls Club of Presque Isle is located in Micmac territory and designs programming specifically in line with the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.

The PBGC is funded by donations and grants, including from First Nations’ Native Youth and Culture Fund. Funding in 2018 supported a project at the Boys & Girls Club of Presque Isle to increase engagement between Micmac youth and elders through interviews, talking circles and classes that pass down the practices, beliefs and values of the Micmac people.

Further funding from First Nations is building momentum for this project and the overall work of PBGC by adding to what we know about youth programming that impacts Native American boys and men.

Responding to Needs

This type of funding is critical in keeping PBGC going, Jones says. “There’s not any kind of services dedicated to teens in our area. We’re trying to fill that void.”

For staff of PBGC this means leading programs for character and leadership development, education and career development, sports and fitness, the arts, and health and life skills. On a day-to-day basis for teens, this might involve attending a PGBC Black Light Dance or a Teen Dating Violence Awareness program, or it may be just coming to the community center to hang out after school, says Jones.

This resource is imperative for several reasons. According to Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 15.1 million children are left unsupervised after school each day, a situation that can lead to increased dropout rates, poor health outcomes, crime and other unwanted behaviors. Boys & Girls Clubs of America further reports that Native youth are among the most vulnerable with higher rates than their peers across the board for poverty, suicide, alcoholism, obesity, diabetes, and quitting high school.

Adding to this, Maine faces a “distressing rate” of drug overdose fatalities and the opioid epidemic continues to be “tearing apart Maine families and communities,” according to the Maine Attorney General.

Through its mentoring program, academic support and community center, the PBGC provides a healthy pathway for kids at risk. “We’re able to reach kids who are on the streets, to connect with them before bad things happen. Then if bad things do happen, we provide support to help them through it,” says Jones. “We’re here in the community as a place to turn.”

Nichole Francis, PBGC CEO, says that the organization is not just a safe space for youth of all ages to come and receive a hot meal or educational and prevention programming. “We are a place where lives are positively shaped and molded,” she says. “We build character – the type of character our community needs and strives to become.”

Francis adds that without the support of community and foundation funding, PBGC programs would cease to exist and the community would be facing even more of an epidemic on all fronts.

Reinforcing Native Culture

Keeping the Micmac language alive is essential, especially for children in the community who may not be learning about their culture and heritage at home.

Keeping the Micmac language alive is essential, especially for children in the community who may not be learning about their culture and heritage at home.

In addition to funding overall operating costs, the First Nations grant has also supported the revitalization of the AmeriCorps VISTA position for the PBGC. VISTA stands for Volunteers in Service to America, and while the position is not paid, there are costs associated with facilitating their work.

Jones says all PBGC programming is vetted by the PBGC cultural department to align with Micmac culture. However, he says, being able to establish the PBGC VISTA in Indian Country has made it possible to bolster these activities.

The PBGC VISTA is based in the community and spends 40 hours each week focused on tribal resource development and direct outreach to the Native community about the kinds of support Native youth, especially boys, need. From there, the VISTA reports back to PBGC to plan events and guide programs that draw on the strengths of the Micmac culture.

This programming is essential for keeping the culture – and the language – alive for kids who are often not taught about it at home. Moreover, it’s education that benefits not only Native youth, but also the non-Native community, says Jones. “So many of us don’t know the customs and cultural knowledge, but from these programs, we all have something to learn. Having this focus gets us all on the same page and helps us better respond to the community, which is what we’re here to do.”

Meeting Challenges

Through the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club, youth learn about and draw strength from their heritage. Here, kids display regalia they made themselves in a special after-school class by a traditional artist who resides in the community.

Through the Penobscot Boys & Girls Club, youth learn about and draw strength from their heritage. Here, kids display regalia they made themselves in a special after-school class by a traditional artist who resides in the community.

Like other Native- and youth-serving organizations, the PBGC faces challenges in space and funding. While it has acquired a community center for after-school programming, classes and events, Jones says they’re quickly outgrowing their space. There is always a need to reach more kids, and with more kids comes the need to diversify programs to reach different ages and to add staff to lead the programs. All of this, Jones says, requires funding.

Still, they do what they can by getting creative with budgets and always collaborating and partnering with the community. “We’re blessed to have a lot of support and a lot of interaction with the people we serve,” he says.

Going forward, the PBGC hopes to expand on efforts, further engaging parents, building more capacity and leveraging the success it has gained through the support of First Nations and other partners to continue to do more for the Boys & Girls Club youth.

“It’s important and it’s good for kids,” Jones says. “I would love to be able to do it all.”

By Amy Jakober