Falmouth youth are frequent players at weekly Gift of Chess games with young asylum seekers. Contributed / Katie Moore

Falmouth students can be found every Saturday morning seated across chess boards from young members of asylum-seeking families staying in South Portland.

Despite different backgrounds, life circumstances and language barriers, there is a sense of community and belonging at the gatherings, said Katie Moore, who spearheaded the Falmouth students’ involvement.

The Portland chapter of the nonprofit The Gift of Chess has been operating since early January, and has given kids from asylum-seeking families the opportunity to “just have fun,” said Moore, a physician and Falmouth resident.

“This is something that unites us over race, language and ethnicity,” she said. “It’s been really beautiful.”

During the pandemic, Moore’s brother Russ Makofsky had the idea to put chess sets in front of New York City kids as a way to connect them with family members and caregivers during an isolating time. His program expanded to include chess clubs to serve refugee and prison populations and as an educational program around the world. In December 2022, Moore decided to get Falmouth involved.

She wanted to give children of asylum seekers something meaningful to be part of, she said. She got in touch with a group of about 18 Falmouth students who had raised money for holiday gifts for needy children and asked them if they wanted to play chess on Saturdays. The idea spread, and now, there are Falmouth students at every chess club meeting, she said.


“Everything I’ve heard from our Falmouth kids has been wildly positive,” Moore said. “It’s just the beginning.”

All participants learn from each other over the chess boards, she said. The asylum-seeking students are encouraged to speak English at the club to work on their language skills. The Falmouth students are learning from their new peers and valuing them as members of their community, she said.

Later this month, a Gift of Chess club will start up at the Portland VA Clinic with the help of retired Falmouth physician Lawrence Leonard.

“I’m a veteran with some time on my hands,” Leonard said. “I’d like to help other veterans as much as possible.”

He’s looking forward to sharing the game’s benefits with his peers.

“Chess helps keep my brain active,” Leonard said. “And it helps keep me humble, because I often lose.”

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