PORTLAND — Bill and Ann Weber believe more students at Portland High School should have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, which they say enriches the high school experience and gives students a chance to broaden their horizons.

That’s why the couple has worked with the Foundation for Portland Public Schools to create the Step Up Award, which provides students in the Make It Happen program with a stipend so they don’t have to work and can more fully participate in the life of the school and wider community.

The first two winners of the award, Beni Nkashama, a senior, and Mariam Douale, a junior, will each receive $1,250 per semester as long as they remain in good academic standing and can demonstrate that they’re engaged in extracurricular activities they would not otherwise have been able to access.

“Portland High School is a really magical school,” Bill Weber said during the Dec. 14 award ceremony, “but what really helped our sons to shine was the extracurriculars. This is a very important aspect of the high school experience and it’s a shame” that some students are prevented from participating by work or family obligations.

Nkashama and Douale are “incredibly impressive,” said Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana. “They are such amazing students with so much promise and so much to give the world.”

Botana also said he’s “incredibly grateful for people like the Webers, who understand that it’s within their ability to increase access and opportunity” for our students. “I believe (they’ve) set an example that others can follow.”

Make It Happen is a college readiness program specifically designed for high school-level English language learners, according to a School Department press release.

Students who participate in Make It Happen “work … to build competitive academic profiles for college admission” and they’re also encouraged “to take challenging classes … (and) engage in leadership activities, community service, and career readiness opportunities,” the release said.

Tim Cronin, the director of Make It Happen, said last week that Nkashama and Douale are “a couple of all-stars,” who both demonstrate “an incredible work ethic” and “a relentless pursuit of excellence.”

Cronin said the Step Up Award “levels the playing field” and called it a “really unique, remarkable and important opportunity.”

Bill Weber said he and his wife got the idea for creating the Step Up Award while one of their sons was still attending Portland High. He was a soccer player and one day at practice Weber noticed a former teammate of his son’s was not taking part.

When Weber asked why, his son told him that the other student had to quit the team because he needed to work and help support his family. Weber thought that was too bad, especially since the student had shown such athletic promise and dedication to the game.

So he and his wife began talking about “ways we could allow kids to take better advantage of extracurriculars,” which is critically important, Weber said, because it gives kids a chance to meet new people and learn leadership and other life skills.

The Webers eventually reached out to Kate Snyder, executive director of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, and worked with her to create the Step Up Award, which, Weber said, “has some criteria based on a student’s future aspirations and academic standing.”

Ann Weber said while academics must come first, it’s also important for students to develop outside interests and get a chance to discover themselves.

For this first round, the Webers said choosing the winners was extremely difficult because all of the application essays were “very moving” and “all the kids were great and are so pro-family and just want to help their parents and make them proud.”

“It was a very hard decision,” Bill Weber added. “All of the kids deserve this chance, that’s why I hope there are other donors out there willing to support this program.”

Nkashama takes mostly honors and advanced placement classes and he’s done a lot of things throughout his high school career, including participation in the Telling Room, Outward Bound, and the PHS track team.

His mother, Dada Mukadi, said her son is “always on the go” and she’s “so happy” he’s been given the chance to do even more. While Nkashama has enjoyed every activity he’s tried so far, his favorites are volunteering at Cultivating Community and playing squash with Portland Community Squash.

Douale still works about 10 hours a week, but that’s down from nearly 30. She is the second oldest of five siblings and said her hope is to go to college in Boston and study political science.

“What I really want is to be an example to my younger siblings and show them that you can be whatever you want to be,” she said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Portland High School students Mariam Douale, left, and Beni Nkashama are the inaugural winners of the Step Up Award, which provides a stipend so students can participate in after-school and community activities.

Ann and Bill Weber, right, whose sons graduated from Portland High School, have provided funding for the new Step Up Award. The couple is pictured with Dada Mukadi, the mother of one of the inaugural winners.