For the first time in 24 years, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell wasn’t able to attend the Mitchell Institute’s Fall Gala, having fallen and sustained a concussion the night before.

“There’s no keeping that man down,” said Mitchell Institute President Meg Baxter, introducing Mitchell’s recorded keynote address Nov. 1 at the Portland Sheraton at Sable Oaks.

Mitchell has been a soldier, a lawyer, governor, a senator, an international peace-broker and a business leader. But, as founder of the Mitchell Institute, the 86-year-old is continuing to build a legacy through thousands of young Mainers. Since 1995, the institute has awarded $17 million in scholarships, selecting one Mitchell scholar from each of the 133 public high schools in Maine each year. Today, thousands of Mitchell scholars are in the workforce and more than 560 are in college.

“It’s one of the most important economic development programs in the state,” said former development director Bonnie Lewis of Raymond. “They pull young people out of every school in Maine who have academic potential, are involved in their communities and have financial need. Once they become a Mitchell scholar, they get all the support they can hope for. This is George Mitchell’s legacy.”

The 2019 gala raised a whopping $263,000, largely thanks to corporate sponsors. It was also a chance for a select 80 scholars and alumni to mingle with 375 donors and business and community leaders.

“Sen. Mitchell’s legacy inspires so many donors,” said scholarship director Kim Gustafson. “For the students, it’s truly transformational. Approximately 40 percent are the first generation from their families to go to college, and having an opportunity like this sets them up for success.”

Aspen Cote, a University of Maine dental hygiene student from Madawaska, is the youngest of three sisters who make up the first generation in their family to earn four-year degrees. “The scholarship alleviates some of the stress of having to pay for school and for books to get an education and do something you’re interested in,” she said.

The institute also offers wraparound support and networking and leadership training. For example, it was through a Mitchell Institute outdoor leadership weekend at Baxter State Park that Samuel Stone found his calling to become a park ranger. Then, it was through a Mitchell Institute-sponsored job fair that he found summer employment as a park ranger with Portland Parks and Recreation.

“Every Mitchell Institute scholar has their own way they’ve been helped through the Mitchell Institute,” said Stone, a graduate of Poland Regional High School who is studying parks, recreation and tourism at the University of Southern Maine.

Lewiston High School graduate Deni Federico was a freshman at Husson University when she lost her mother to cancer.

“My mom knew that the Mitchell Institute scholarship was a big deal,” said Federico, now a graduate student in occupational therapy. “The family feeling has stayed with me since my first gala. Thanks to the Mitchell Institute, dreams are becoming a reality for hundreds of students like myself. It’s truly more than a scholarship.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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