BIDDEFORD – Amy Sutton spent her childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home, and never finished school.
She’s now 24 and lives in a car with her fiance. She tried adult education programs but never connected with her teachers and classmates, and dropped out each time.
But Sutton has found a safe haven in an unconventional new school.
At YouthBuild Biddeford, Sutton quickly clicked with a small group of classmates who understand her struggles with homelessness, poverty and depression. She also found a group of teachers and counselors who guide her through academics and developing job skills, and support her on her darkest days.
“You don’t find schools that are like that,” Sutton said. “A while ago I was going nowhere. My life has turned around completely since I started here.”
YouthBuild Biddeford, an alternative high school for at-risk youths, opened two months ago to give low-income students a chance to earn General Educational Development degrees while rehabbing Biddeford Housing Authority properties.
The program has quickly become a source of stability for its 10 students, say the teachers and mentors who work with them each day.
Many of the students have suffered from mental illness, substance abuse, run-ins with police and other problems that make it difficult for them to succeed in a traditional school setting, said Nancy Kopack, the program’s director.
YouthBuild Biddeford will host an open house from 1 to 2 p.m. Thursday to show off its renovated classroom space in a former church sanctuary on Crescent Street.
On Tuesday, students painted the walls a sunny yellow and divided the large room into smaller areas with painted doors.
After the Biddeford Housing Authority won a $685,000 grant for the two-year program, it teamed up with LearningWorks, which has run a YouthBuild program in Portland for nearly 20 years.
The program in Biddeford started with five students before doubling its enrollment in March.
As many as 10 more students could join at the end of this month.
“There are a lot of students in need of services in this area,” Kopack said.
The South Street neighborhood, where the school is located, is one of the poorest areas of the city.
The YouthBuild programs in Biddeford and Portland are the only two in Maine. Nationally, there are 272 YouthBuild programs in 46 states, funded through grants administered by the Department of Labor.
“Public schools do a really good job for the majority of kids, but for some kids that setting just doesn’t work,” said Ethan Strimling, CEO of LearningWorks. “We can really individualize the educational experience for young people. It allows them to feel more like a part of the community and that they’re with peers who have struggled in similar ways.”
After being referred to the program through schools, friends, service agencies or the Maine Department of Corrections, students attend YouthBuild for about nine weeks.
School days alternate between classroom time to prepare for GED exams and work on construction projects.
Many students will earn Home Builders Institute certificates.
Each student receives a stipend of as much as $23 a day for working hard and behaving well during the program.
Students also receive on-site counseling from a staff counselor and assistance preparing for jobs from a specialist with Jobs for Maine Graduates.
“We’re opening options for them they didn’t have before,” said Paul Comeau, the construction site manager, who works with students as they rehab nearby properties of the Biddeford Housing Authority. “This gives them a leg up.”
Ricky Brochu, a 20-year-old student from Biddeford, is aiming to turn his experience with YouthBuild Biddeford into a career in the construction industry.
He dropped out of high school three years ago after constantly getting in trouble, but wanted to go back to school to provide a better life for himself and his 2-year-old daughter, Sophia.
“I was tired of doing the same thing. I wasn’t getting nowhere in a regular high school,” he said. “I wanted to believe in myself, so I came here.”
Since February, Brochu has learned to better control his anger. He finds he focuses better in a school environment with fewer students.
“It’s not so many kids, so my head’s not running constantly,” he said. “This is a great environment.”
Sutton, who along with Brochu was among the first five students in the program, says YouthBuild Biddeford is a positive program that will allow her to pursue her dream of opening a homeless shelter and weekend soup kitchen in Biddeford.
She’d also like to earn a commercial driver’s license.
“I have huge dreams and I hope this school will help me succeed,” Sutton said.
While Sutton feels the program has already had a positive effect on her, she believes its impact will be felt throughout the city.
“This is what’s going to rebuild Biddeford,” she said.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: