September 23, 2012

Bill Nemitz: It takes a new American citizen to raise a village

(Continued from page 2)

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Maxwell Chikuta, originally from Congo, became a U.S. citizen Friday morning at a naturalization ceremony in South Portland.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Maxwell Chikuta, who volunteers as a member of the United Way speakers bureau, addresses a rally at the L.L. Bean Order Fulfillment Center in Freeport on Wednesday.

Gordon Chibroski

Then in 2006, Maxwell graduated from SMCC with an associate degree in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration. That led to a job in Maine Medical Center's engineering department.

On Maxwell went to the University of Southern Maine's School of Engineering, where he graduated in 2009 with a bachelor of science degree.

He still wasn't finished.

"I transferred to the Muskie School of Public Service, where I got my master's in 2011," Maxwell said.

A master's degree? In what?

"Public policy and management," he replied.

This month, Maxwell enrolled in Minnesota-based Walden University's online doctoral program. Within the next year or two, he promised, he'll have his Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in public health.

Through it all, Maxwell continues to work the night shift at Maine Medical Center. He and Sally managed to buy a house in Portland's North Deering neighborhood, where they now live with their two American-born children and the two older kids they finally retrieved from Congo in 2005.

In short, it's a long way from the food stamps, the MaineCare, the general assistance and the rest of the social safety net that cradled Maxwell, Sally and the kids until, like the newcomer to his village, he could stand on his own.

Yet for all his upward mobility, Maxwell hasn't forgotten that old village rule. That shared responsibility for those climbing the ladder below him. 

MAXWELL REACHED into his pocket for an index card covered front-to-back with his careful printing.

"This is my community involvement," he said.

He's a member of Habitat for Humanity's local family selection committee.

He's on the city of Portland's Community Development Block Grant Committee, which in the coming months will allocate $2.4 million in community development grants. At the same time, he'll serve on a recently established community transition team for Emmanuel Caulk, Portland's new school superintendent.

When an ice storm hit southern Maine in 2007, Maxwell left his home (which was without power) and supervised a shelter at the Portland Expo as a member of the American Red Cross of Maine's disaster action team.

Last year, Maine Medical Center designated Maxwell its loaned executive to the United Way of Greater Portland. Now, on his own precious time, he serves on the United Way's public policy and finance committees and volunteers as a member of its speakers bureau.

"The reason I am here is because you put this smile on my face," Maxwell told 50 L.L. Bean employees at a United Way rally in Freeport on Wednesday evening -- one of four such appearances he made in two days. "You might wonder why I say 'you.' It is because you are in the community that helped put me where I am today."

After the rousing speech, a young worker, himself a native of Congo, approached Maxwell and asked if he might help the L.L. Bean immigrant workers organize a soccer team.

"Of course," Maxwell replied without hesitation, scribbling his number on an index card. "Call me. We'll do it."

Another employee, the son of Irish immigrants, told Maxwell he once volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine's Portland pool. Earlier, Maxwell had said that's where his kids learned to swim.

"Thank you," Maxwell said, smiling and extending his hand to the red-bearded L.L. Bean worker. "Thank you for what you are doing in the community." 

FRIDAY MORNING, dressed in a crisp, gray business suit, shiny black shoes, pink shirt and red tie, a noticeably more reserved Maxwell walked into the immigration center in South Portland. At his side were Sally (he calls her "my world") and their teenage daughter Sharon, a sophomore at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland.

(Continued on page 4)

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