Doris Rodriguez, of Falmouth, leads the group of 10 fellows graduating from the city of Portland’s Natural Helpers leadership program on Saturday. Behind her are Victoria Hernandez and Sarah Fitzgerald. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

With no English skills and no family to help, Guy Mpoyi spent his first two months in the United States living in Washington. He thought he was living in the nation’s capital, but Mpoyi eventually discovered he had been living in Seattle, Washington.

That’s how confusing something as basic as the transportation system can be for an immigrant.

Mpoyi never forgot that feeling. Six years later, after he had settled in Portland, the Democratic Republic of Congo native launched a bus-ambassador service to help other immigrants learn to navigate the public transit system they rely on to get to work, school, the market and the hospital.

“I was confronted with the stark reality that the public transportation system was a significant barrier for most immigrants,” Mpoyi said. “I told myself this situation must change. This situation bothered me a lot, and I wanted to advocate for it. … It’s the small things that can make a big difference.”

This desire to use his immigrant experience to help others is why Mpoyi was chosen to enroll in the latest round of the city’s Natural Helpers leadership program, which graduated 10 new community leaders during an inspirational ceremony atop the Casco Building on Saturday.

Launched by the city of Portland’s Office of Economic Opportunity in 2020, the Natural Helpers program has evolved into a four-month fellowship where participants work with city officials, area businesses, community groups and the University of Southern Maine to hone their leadership skills.


The 10 newest fellows originate from immigrant communities in the U.S. and seven foreign countries, from Angola to Peru, but now make their homes in Portland, Lewiston and Westbrook. They speak seven languages and range in age from their 20s to their 70s.

Over the last four months, fellows have donated more than 100 hours to help more than 150 people. For example, they helped 17 people find housing, 11 people find jobs, eight people get driver’s licenses, and eight people meet their energy and heating needs, according to program records.

Fellows enrolled 19 people in MaineCare or state-mandated free medical care, including six pregnant women. Once enrolled, individuals qualified to have past medical bills paid, including one individual who had over $40,000 in medical debt covered.

During the graduation, fellows urged the crowd not to give up and to help others less fortunate than themselves.

Amevi Assoutovi, 37, is a community health outreach worker for the city of Portland, originally from Togo. He graduated from the city’s Natural Helpers leadership program on Saturday. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

“No one decides where they were born,” said Amevi Assoutovi, a community health outreach worker who fled Togo in 2017 and journeyed north from Brazil, eventually ending up in Maine. “Everything that I went through in my journey taught me the true meaning of empathy and the value of life.”

The hardest part of his journey was the five days spent walking through the mountainous forest on the narrow and lawless border between Columbia and Panama. “I saw a lot of death with my eyes,” he said. “Children, pregnant women and men attacked with machete, knife or gun, just for money.”


The group’s oldest fellow, Doris Rodriguez, was born in Spanish Harlem in New York City to Puerto Rican parents. When her father left, Rodriguez was only 4 years old. Her mother sent her to live with family in Puerto Rico until she was 9. She arrived back in New York on a cold Christmas Day.

“I had no idea where I was, who my mother was or my family,” said Rodriguez, who had spent years thinking her mother was dead. “I’d never been to a city before. I’d never even seen so many cars. Where I came from, all we saw were farm animals.”

She described a tough upbringing of beatings and neglect, but it forged her into the fighter she is today. She recalls learning to fight by watching wrestling on TV while living with an elderly couple who wouldn’t let her go outside to play. Rodriguez still fights today, but not with her fists.

Now she uses her bilingual skills to “protect the underdog,” especially other immigrants like herself.

For Belinda Vemba, a new Mainer from Angola, the fellowship has helped her find her voice and recognize her potential. Vemba recalls struggling with speech problems as a child that caused her to doubt herself, and she developed an aversion to both school and public speaking.

“The worst thing that can happen to a person is not having the power to speak,” Vemba said. “I was always so nervous, scared to speak. My nervousness triggered so many things. In my childhood, I went through self-doubt. Life could not continue this way, so I had to change.”


Vemba said she had no choice but to become her own doctor. Her diagnosis? Nervousness. Her prescription was hard work and patience: She taught herself to read, to read out loud and to speak more slowly. Now she can help others find their voice.

“Sometimes the toughest lessons in life is where the beautiful courage comes from,” Vemba said.

The program is an example of Portland’s commitment to welcoming newcomers, Mayor Mark Dion said.

“Their commitment to our community will help newcomers to Portland leverage existing resources and set them up for success,” said Dion, who spoke at the graduation. “Portland is a welcoming city that wants all residents to feel like they belong here.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.