Atak Natali and Divine Macibiri, students at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland, are known in their large families as problem solvers.

That was even before they organized a cleanup event at the Front Street neighborhood playgrounds and secured a grant to repaint and repair the equipment there.

“When there’s something wrong in the house, I’m always up to making it resolved,” Atak said with a self-assuredness that’s rare in a 13-year-old. “She’s like the neighborhood co-leader,” he said, referring to Divine, 14. “If there’s any fight, she stops the fight. If there’s nothing for the kids to do, she does something with them.”

Atak and Divine participate in the Multilingual Center’s after-school program called Make it Happen!, which seeks to help students build a resume that will impress college admissions officials. The program steers them toward more challenging courses and encourages them to be involved in leadership roles outside the classroom.

Divine was born in Rwanda and came to the United States when she was 5 years old. Atak was born in the U.S. after his parents came from Sudan and South Sudan.

Make it Happen! staff suggested to Atak that he come up with a community problem to work on.

“I said, ‘Bingo! My neighborhood playground needs to get fixed,’ ” Atak said. He asked Divine to work on the project with him.

The playgrounds – both have two small climbing structures with a pair of swings and two slides – were in bad shape, and had been for a while. The swings were broken and there was graffiti on the slides and climbing apparatus.

“Some people, when they see a kid, most times they think they can’t make a difference,” Divine said. “They think the older ones are the only ones who can make a change.”

Their social studies teacher, David Hilton, said he helped the pair apply for a $500 grant from Painting for a Purpose. Teachers, the Portland Red Claws basketball operation and the Portland Housing Authority, which operates the 50 family apartments at the Front Street public housing complex where the two students live, all offered to help. For their efforts, the two received plaques of commendation from the Portland School Board.

When the pair organized a neighborhood cleanup, 50 children and a handful of teachers showed up. Now that the playground is refurbished, more children use the equipment, Divine said.

The playground improvements, which also included a new layer of wood chips on the ground, were completed last spring and summer, but Atak and Divine say they’re not finished.

“We’re going to keep moving forward,” Atak said. “I was kind of hoping to get the neighborhood some street lights because it’s really, really dark – and maybe get some speed bumps.” Divine wants to get a basketball hoop installed.

Listening to the pair speak during a break in classes, it seems inevitable that they will continue to exert a positive impact on their community. Each has been given a handcrafted desk, the gift of an anonymous Portland police officer, to thank them for their work on the playground.

Atak says he would like to study law when he grows up. Divine is less certain about what profession she’ll pursue, but knows she wants to improve people’s lives.

“I was interested in engineering, but there’s a lot of other stuff,” she said. “I just want to help people. If something’s not right, make it better.”

– David Hench

Read all of our profiles of Mainers to be thankful for in 2015.

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