Opportunity Alliance celebrates its quietly impressive volunteers in a formerly dilapidated barn that now serves as its Family Center.

A barn raising brings people together to build something, but Opportunity Alliance’s barn already had been constructed and renovated. So its Barn Raising event was about what is still being built, day by day: the community itself.

“We wanted to recognize some folks who go about their work in a quiet way but make a significant difference,” said Mike Tarpinian, president and chief executive officer of Opportunity Alliance. “It’s individuals who create sustainability. We’re honoring volunteers who have helped with the work we’re doing in the community.”

The Family Center, the former barn in the backyard of the Portland International Jetport, is now the organization’s welcoming hub for dozens of programs, including children and youth mental health services, programs related to child abuse and neglect, and administration of federal programs such as WIC and Head Start.

“It’s really a beautiful space,” said Katie Paye, grants and appeals manager for Opportunity Alliance, noting the original beams and floorboards.

The barn, built in 1903, was once part of the Southern Maine Juvenile Facility, where boys were sentenced to labor for minor offenses, such as stealing a loaf of bread.

“A place where kids came to be punished has been transformed into a place where we can transform families,” said Christine Stelling, senior vice president of development and communication.

Everything from supervised parental visits and family mediation to staff and agency training happens at the Family Center.

“It’s interesting to see this community come together and honor people who normally wouldn’t be scene or heard,” said Jamie Lebich of Portland, leaving with his bass guitar. “As a musician and an addiction therapist, it’s nice to be able to play for them and recognize all the good work they do.”

“It’s always nice to have that celebration energy,” said Sharon Brobst, representing TD Bank, lead sponsor of the event. “We just feed on each other.”

“I know a number of board members, and I’m here to support their efforts,” said Allison Herrick, who works nearby at Macpage, LLC. “This is a great community nonprofit.”

Opportunity Alliance came to be in 2011, a merger of social service organizations Ingraham, Youth Alternatives and PROP.

“A lot of the stronger agencies have decided to come together to share services and lobbying voices,” said board member Tim Soley, a real estate developer from Cape Elizabeth. “It makes all of us stronger.”

“And less financially vulnerable,” added his wife, Maria Gallace.

Opportunity Alliance is also inspires devoted volunteerism, as exemplified by Volunteer of the Year Cynthia Veroneau of South Portland.

“I really believe in this organization,” said Veroneau, a real estate agent and mother of three who first got involved as an intern 20 years ago. “You’re putting clothes on the poor, feeding the hungry, giving people a place to sleep.”

“Literally, she gets people off the floor,” said friend Amy Bois, explaining that Veroneau collects mattresses and distributes them to people without beds. “She’s not afraid to ask.”

“She has helped us to provide for people who are struggling in the community,” said Rachel White, director of the Parkside Neighborhood Center. Veroneau has rounded up large quantities of whatever people need, from diapers to coats to backpacks to Christmas gifts to bedding.

Community leadership is about seeing a need and finding a solution, as exemplified by the Resident Leader of the Year, Sharmarke Hussain Ali.

His family came here from Somalia in 2005, and as a high school student in Lewiston, he benefited from a volunteer tutor who helped him learn English. As a math major at the University of Southern Maine, Ali saw that immigrant students at Portland High School were struggling as he once had. And he enlisted the help of other university students in creating an after-school tutoring program at Portland High called TASEL (Tutor After School English Learners).

“I wanted to provide the same thing that I was given,” said Ali, a recent USM graduate.

“When I first met Sharmarke, I was instantly captivated by his ambition and his enthusiasm,” said Grace Scale, youth program coordinator at Parkside Neighborhood Center. “He created that experience for more kids because he knew what they go through and the language barriers,” said his mother, Roda Noor of Portland. She, too, recently graduated from USM.

Opportunity Alliance is careful to listen to what local people say they need and want. “We are in the community in areas of greatest need,” Soley said.

“What we’re promoting is the connections between the adults and the resources and how to contribute their talents back to the neighborhood,” said Andrea Paul, who oversees neighborhood engagement for Opportunity Alliance.

This past winter, Opportunity Alliance was “getting slammed with calls” requesting fuel assistance, Tarpinian said. “We called WEX, and they came through with a substantial gift to help families in Cumberland County.”

Another longterm partner with Opportunity Alliance is TD Bank.

“They’re both efficient and effective with what they do,” said Larry Wold, president of TD Bank in Maine. “As a donor, you can’t ask for more than that. I’ve watched the organization shift from treating symptoms to addressing root causes.”

Food and drinks for the Barn Raising were provided by a dozen companies, including Nappi Distributors, Coffee by Design, Beach House Deli and Corsetti’s Bakery.

Ice cream sandwiches were served by Aaron and Erika Menard, owners of Sweetie’s Ice Cream, the first recipient of a $5,000 Next Step microloan through Opportunity Alliance.

The Menards were young parents in recovery from alcoholism when Aaron left his career with a wine distributor as part of his commitment to being sober. Last July the Menards opened Sweetie’s at their home in Steep Falls. The loan helped them increase visibility at their location and make it from one season to another.

Erika Menard said, “We were able to sustain our growth because of that opportunity.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

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