It’s not your average philanthropy model. The Lerner Foundation, a multimillion-dollar fund dedicated to raising Maine kids’ aspirations, is hard at work spending itself out of business.

“We made a huge bet,” Eliot Cutler, president of the foundation’s board, said in an interview. “This is not something foundations typically do.”

A little history:

Emanuel and Pauline Lerner were close friends of Cutler’s family. They lived in Washington, D.C., and did very well in business and investing. But they had no children and, after “Manny” died, “Polly” turned to Cutler to do something worthwhile with her estate when she passed. Something that would benefit Maine, the Lerners’ longtime home away from home.

Enter the Lerner Foundation. Established in 2007, it did what most foundations do, wisely investing its initial $4 million endowment and, over the years, awarding upward of $20 million in grants to a wide array of worthy Maine causes.

But for Cutler, who’d learned a lot about rural Maine during his two independent campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2014, it wasn’t enough.

“We were not moving the needle on anything,” Cutler recalled. “We were doing really good stuff, but we were not making any real change.”

So, the foundation took a year off to contemplate its future. Out of that, in 2017, came the Aspirations Incubator.

Its goal: Create six pilot programs throughout Maine, primarily in rural areas, through which middle school kids can begin to broaden their horizons and thus enrich their futures. And spend everything in the foundation’s coffers – around $8 million at the time – to make it happen.

Far from just another in-school program subject to the annual whims of local politics, this would be a collaboration among the Lerner Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to serving young people, cadres of local community members who volunteer as mentors and the local school district.

Four years later, incubators are humming along in and around Cherryfield, Bryant Pond, Old Town, Belfast, Wiscasset and Biddeford. Each September, a “cohort” of 10 to 20 seventh-graders in each community have signed on not just for that year but for every year right through their graduation from high school. The first group will graduate from high school in 2023, the year the money runs out.

And the kids coming up behind them? Good question.

Selected through an application process, the youngsters participate in experiential learning programs ranging from a five-day camping expedition on an island a few miles off Stonington to a bike trip through the western Maine mountains.

They examine and re-examine their visions of a future that includes college – often for the first time in their families – and the infinite career options that come with it.

They enter ninth grade not bewildered by the transition from a small community to a large, regional high school but rather buoyed by the dozen or more kids with whom they’ve bonded through the first two years of the program.

And perhaps most important, they do it all with the constant support of adult mentors who stay at their side not for a month or a school year but for the entire six-year experience. Mentors who go beyond the formal activities and show up at the baseball game, the recital, anywhere their impromptu presence might tell a young mentee, “I care about you. You matter. You’re worth my time.”

Larry Bartlett, 67, a retired engineering consultant from Bath and father to three grown daughters, has been volunteering with various youth development organizations for 30 years. What sets this one apart, he said in an interview, is that strong emphasis on long-term connections – the more informal, the better.

“When it comes to working with young people, teens primarily, the most important thing you can do is form meaningful relationships with them,” Bartlett said. “You can’t fix lives necessarily – their lives tend to be very complicated. But what you can do is show them a caring adult who really looks out for them and feels strongly about their well-being.”

Dalton Johnstone, a rising junior at Morse High School in Bath, has  looked up to Bartlett over the past four years thanks to the collaboration between the Aspirations Incubator, the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset and Maine Regional School Unit 11. Raised by his mother and grandmother, Dalton entered high school two years ago without a clue about where life might take him. Now he’s eyeing a career in medical engineering.

I asked Dustin this week for his thoughts about Bartlett, his mentor.

“He’s a joy to have around,” he replied. “He’s always super warm, he’s pretty knowledgeable, he goes with the flow. He’s not like one of us, but he’s very easy to talk to and bond with, almost like a peer.”

From that connection and hundreds like it, good things have already blossomed.

An interim report released last month by the Lerner Foundation, which has painstakingly tracked its progress through both internal and outside data collection, heralded significant headway on many fronts:

Chronic school absence among the Aspirations Incubator cohorts is half that of overall school populations.

Of eighth-graders surveyed, 99 percent said they expect to finish high school and 88 percent said they expect to pursue a post-secondary degree – this in a state where only 32 percent of people over 25 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Ninety-five percent said they’ve experienced new places through the aspirations program, and 98 percent said it has helped them accept people who are different from them.

Seventy percent showed progress on at least four measures of resiliency and, at an age often associated with disengagement, a refreshing 93 percent said the aspirations program has them feeling more connected to their communities.

In short, the needles are all moving in the right direction. Yet behind that demonstrable success lies the real challenge.

Come 2023, having awarded $600,000 to each of the six pilot programs and supported the Aspirations Incubator with training, research and other backstops, the Lerner Foundation will, as planned, go broke.

Then it will fall to the rest of Maine to decide whether this was great while it lasted or is an experiment well worth preserving and expanding in the years ahead.

Don Carpenter, the Aspirations Incubator’s senior program officer, spearheaded the project after 17 years at the helm of Trekkers, an outdoor-based youth mentoring program in Rockland on which the Lerner Foundation initiative is based. What happens next, he said, is critical to the foundation’s mission.

“Our job over the next two years is to start communicating with other players who really understand youth development, education, community-based grassroots efforts and say, ‘Here’s what we’re learning. Would you invest in this and keep it going?’” Carpenter said.

At School Administrative District 44 in Bethel, that would be a resounding yes.

School Superintendent David Murphy said Wednesday that the pilot program there – it’s called NorthStar and is operated by the University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond – already has office space at Telstar Middle School and High School. What’s more, he said, the local school board recently included $12,000 in its budget to start exploring ways to keep NorthStar going after the lights go out at the Lerner Foundation.

“The world we live in is such that you have some families that are able to provide lots of opportunities for their kids and some that struggle with that,” Murphy said. “This helps fill that gap.”

Will it work? Will other foundations, youth organizations, and government entities step up once the Lerner Foundation spends its last dime?

Most important, will the dozens of mentors and hundreds of preteens and adolescents now immersed in the Aspirations Incubator be the vanguard of a movement that someday benefits kids all over Maine?

Time will tell. For now, the $8 million bet is on.


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