Naomi Zarin, Quincy Kern-Johnson, Margarida Celestino and Ocen (Matthew) Oryem perform the story of Samar Ahmed, a 2013 graduate of Casco Bay High School, as part of the school’s People of Portland Project. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The best way to understand a person is to walk a mile in his or her shoes. While juniors at Casco Bay High School didn’t do exactly just that, their project that culminated last week shined a new light on the lives of Portland residents.

The People of Portland Project, held March 20, brought to the stage the stories of 22 inspiring Portland residents who have shown immense courage, resilience and strength in the face of hardship or injustice. 

“We are using people’s stories to effect change and using their stories as an inspiration,” junior Georgia Ellingsworth said.

Juniors Georgia Ellingsworth, Oliver Ramsey and Peter Ashley share the story of Portland resident Debra Holston. The group, like others, used only the words of their interviewee during the performance. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

This is the second year the annual tradition has involved a public performance, said English teacher Susan McCray. Previously the project included turning stories of people into written narratives, documentaries or audio slideshows. Students have profiled residents of West Virginia, New York City, Detroit and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Junior Evan Haapala said performing the stories, using solely the words of their subjects, allows a greater connection between the work and the public.

“It’s definitely been interesting to hear all the individuals who were nominated tell their stories and how everyone has their own, inspirational story,” he said.

Cisco Andre said he was inspired by the resiliency of his subject, Mustafa Khamis, a native of Sudan who was challenged both by his relocation to the United States and receiving a diagnosis with muscular dystrophy.

“Being around Mustafa taught me no matter what you are going through, your challenges shouldn’t bring you down or destroy your present or future,” he said.

McCray said this is the first year students have asked the community to nominate people to profile.

“We asked people to nominate people who inspired them who showed courage, resilience and strength in times of hardship or injustice,” she said.

Junior Margarida Celestino said the individuals featured represent a diverse group of residents.

According to the school, those featured “range in age from their teens to 80s, and they have an equally expansive array of experiences and accomplishments. Some have emigrated from war or genocide; some have experienced trauma or survived addiction; one is the first Muslim and Somali woman to hold public office in South Portland and Maine; another survived sexual assault and is now an outspoken advocate.”

The project, McCray said, has allowed students to make real-world connections with the community.

“I love (this project) because I am a believer of getting out of the school building and doing things in the real world. In this project, students sit across the table from someone different from them,” she said.

It has also taught students how to take information they are given, determine what is the most important and transition that into a narrative and then a performance script.

“Everyone has a story. You just have to listen,” McCray said.

Celestino said the project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the junior teachers and advisers and parent volunteers and, of course, the interviewees.

“You gave us the most important gift of all, the gift of your story,” she said.

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