Jenna Vendil was living with her single mother and older sister when they were evicted from their home during her senior year of high school in Daly City, Calif.

She didn’t even know whether she would graduate.

But with a dream of helping others and the support of teachers and social workers, Vendil earned her diploma from Westmoor High School, landed a full scholarship to Bates College in Lewiston, and headed east to a whole new world.

“Looking back, I realized how important it was to have that vision of helping others because it helped me through,” Vendil said. “I wanted to spend time in a different part of the world, and Bates had a strong service-learning component, great academics and community service.”

The move would suit Vendil well — at age 26, she has made her mark in the Portland area and beyond through her political advocacy, inspiring leadership and determination.

A grassroots organizer for Planned Parenthood of New England and the District 1 representative on the Portland School Committee, Vendil strives to empower young people to make a difference in the world.

These are some of the reasons she has been honored with a MaineToday Media Forty Under 40 award as an emerging young leader in Maine.

“Jenna shows up to shine every day,” said Amy Cookson, who met Vendil through Emerge Maine, a program to train Democratic women to run for office, and nominated her for the award. “I am inspired by her passion and energy.”

Vendil said she has always worked hard; according to Cookson, Vendil also does all the legwork in between the bigger events.

“Growing up, I always felt that I wanted to do work in service to others,” Vendil said.

A political science and American culture studies double major at Bates, Vendil participated in student rallies, and was a political organizer and tutor. During college, she worked with the Maine People’s Alliance as a canvasser, where she learned how to manage and staff events.

She said a defining experience from her college days was when the alliance and students worked to defeat a proposal by the mayor of Lewiston to build a boulevard that would have displaced many residents of a downtown low-income neighborhood.

Alec Naybarduk, an activist and friend of Vendil’s, said it was hard as a student activist to have anyone show up at rallies, but sure enough, Vendil came with him to City Hall.

Vendil credits him for helping her find her passion for citizen advocacy.

“She is always overcoming barriers and making her mark,” said Naybarduk. “She always has a major project going on and never seems to quit.”

This didn’t change when Vendil became the first member of her family to graduate from college.

In 2009, she was elected to Portland’s school board. She said she wanted to bring a young voice and transparency to the board, and to advocate for public education.

“I have always been concerned with public education because it was such a difference-maker in my life,” Vendil said.

More recently, Vendil has been working as an organizer for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, helping organize rallies with community members and clergy and working to influence policies that involve women’s health and reproductive rights, such as access to abortion.

Vendil was recently invited to a reception with President Barack Obama as part of a national program called the Young Elected Officials Network, run by People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group that helps young leaders in their communities.

She works roughly 15 hours a day between her two positions and is training for a half marathon in the fall. She loves reading and reflecting in her journal, and tries to spend as much time with her family and friends as possible.

Vendil said she tries to rein herself in on weekends, but finds it difficult to avoid working on the issues important to her.

“Youth contribute energy and willingness to make our systems function as a society,” Vendil said. “As young people, we have a responsibility to make sure that the work we do now has a lasting impact.”

Staff Writer Ellie Cole can be contacted at 791-6359 or at:

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