Empathy, tolerance and understanding aren’t just nice words to Natalie Gale. They are the ideals that fueled her efforts to combat the isolation, complacency and disregard that she believes many immigrants encounter in her community and beyond.

Gale, 18, established Cultural Communications, a program that allowed Cape Elizabeth High School students to mentor and provide academic support for immigrant students in Cape Elizabeth and Portland schools. About 35 high school students participated, spending one or two days each week with about 25 English-language learners in Cape Elizabeth’s middle and elementary schools, and many more in Portland’s three middle schools.

“Cape Elizabeth isn’t really representative of the demographics of southern Maine,” Gale says. “In a place as homogeneous as Cape Elizabeth, immigrants experience so much isolation and complacency.”

Gale, who graduates from Cape Elizabeth this month, found that she enjoyed interacting with immigrant students as much as organizing the program, recruiting student mentors and collaborating with school administrators in both districts.

“It really changed the course of my life,” Gale says. “I’ve really come to value dialogue and community. We see news reports about the international refugee crisis and that’s really all it is until you meet these kids and understand what they’ve been through. It’s easy to insult or ignore someone until they’re in a room with you, asking for help with their homework.”

Gale’s program has received widespread recognition, including a Gold Star award from the Girl Scouts of Maine, an honor similar to Eagle Scout designation that puts her in the running to be named one of 10 National Young Women of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of the USA. She also won a $20,000 Coca-Cola leadership scholarship and a $10,000 AXA Achievement scholarship.

Gale helped to organize a daylong program on sexual assault for Cape Elizabeth juniors and seniors that was held at the University of Southern Maine so students would consider the issue outside their regular routine. An accomplished violinist, she also is a founding member of the Arisu String Quartet for high school students at the Portland Conservatory of Music and the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra.

Gale plans to attend Harvard in the fall and study sociology.

“I really want to use my abilities to help others,” Gale says. “I want to explore however I can best do that.”

Read all 2017 graduates to watch profiles.

— By Kelley Bouchard