Bruce King is the new co-executive director of Maine Inside Out, an organization that uses the arts to help disenfranchised youth find new methods of self-expression. Courtesy / Bruce King

BRUNSWICK — Bruce King knows something about the challenges of life: In his 20s he learned how to manage a mental illness, battled a substance abuse problem at the same time, and even spent three and a half years in federal prison for trafficking.

So it makes sense that, as of Dec. 21, King is now the new co-executive director of Maine Inside Out, an organization dedicated to helping young people express themselves through performance. The organization, after all, describes itself on its website as collaborating closely with “incarcerated youth” and has produced theater programs at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland for the past 10 years.

While King acknowledged his life experiences may help him bond with some of the organization’s members, he also said Maine Inside Out does more than just work with incarcerated teens.

“It’s becoming broader than that,” he said.

King grew up in Bath, graduating from Morse High School in 1997. He went on to Ithaca college, but for the next three and a half years he struggled, both with clinical depression and addiction to, he said, “a lot of different things.” He dropped out in 2001 at the age of 22. He wound up working in the illegal drug trade, which earned him an arrest in 2005 on charges of trafficking. He went to federal prison in Pennsylvania in 2006, and was released in 2009, a month shy of his 30th birthday.

King said he has beaten his demons – and even went back to Ithaca to finish his bachelor of arts degree in politics in 2010 – but he does not credit the justice system for his reform. He described the prison system he saw as “state-sanctioned trauma.”

Instead, King said he looks to a period between his arrest and conviction as the turning point in his life. He was temporarily released with an ankle monitor to attend to his mother, who at the time was battling stage four cancer. Mother and son leaned on and supported each other, which eventually led King to explore treatment and counseling options.

“During that time, I really started to get my life together,” he said.

Even with the degree, King said he worked for a while as a manual laborer in the Midcoast, until one day in 2015 he went to pick up some hardware at a location in Lewiston that happened to be a drug rehab center. The center’s president offered him a job, which led him to work as a counselor until a Maine Inside Out board member invited him to join the board five years ago.

Margot Fine, Maine Inside Out’s other co-executive director, said King’s background gives him a perspective on the struggles of underprivileged young people that makes him ideal for his new position at the organization.

“He has a lot of deep firsthand knowledge about the urgency of this work,” she said.

Fine said King is dedicated not just to supporting disenfranchised young people, but transforming them into leaders.

“He’s an incredible asset to our state and our communities,” she said.

Darryl Shepherd Jr., now a staff member at the organization, said he first met King about three years ago. Formerly incarcerated himself, Shepherd said he was living in Biddeford at the time, and learned about Maine Inside Out through a career center. He met King at Shepherd’s first performance in Cape Elizabeth.

From there, Shepherd said, King has been both a counselor and a mentor, inspiring him to become a counselor himself. He said he was not at all surprised to learn of King’s new leadership role.

“He’s just really passionate about the work,” Shepherd said. “I’m just inspired by him. He’s a great guy.”

Now living in Brunswick as a single dad with two daughters, King said he is looking forward to seeing Maine Inside Out expand into the Lewiston area, where there are people that need help.

Founded in 2008, the organization has 200 members statewide, and has helped members produce and perform plays, poetry and music. Maine Inside Out has performed at the State House and even went to Washington, D.C., to perform for legislators.

While many members are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated youth, King stressed that the nonprofit also runs small community groups in the greater Portland area for all needy young people, offering everything from one-on-one counseling to assistance with job training and finding housing.

Fine also stressed that the mission includes working with people outside the criminal justice system.

“We see ourselves as a community organization first,” she said.

King said he looks forward to continuing to give underprivileged youth, incarcerated or not, something they may have never had otherwise: a voice.

“This is a way to be heard,” he said. “This is a way to access what you have that is valuable.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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