2016-02-26 / Front Page

Succeeding with a little help from friends

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


STRIVE member Chandler Hawkes comforts a friend, Susie Cloutier, when she gets nervous addressing a crowd of 250 people at the organization’s ribbon cutting ceremony last week. Cloutier was able to finish her speech thanks to some comforting words and support from Associate Director Peter Brown, in the background. (Molly Lovell- Keely photo) STRIVE member Chandler Hawkes comforts a friend, Susie Cloutier, when she gets nervous addressing a crowd of 250 people at the organization’s ribbon cutting ceremony last week. Cloutier was able to finish her speech thanks to some comforting words and support from Associate Director Peter Brown, in the background. (Molly Lovell- Keely photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — It was just a moment, but one that warmed the hearts of everyone who witnessed it, and showed more than words what STRIVE is all about.

On Thursday, Feb. 18, STRIVE (Socialization, Transition, Reflection, Innovation, Vocation, Education), a local nonprofit that serves “tweens, teens and young adults” with developmental disabilities, held a ribboncutting ceremony on a 3,300-square-foot addition to its main program and classroom space, located at 28 Foden Road in South Portland.

“In addition to that we did a total renovation, inside and out, of the existing space,” said STRIVE’s associate director, Peter Brown. “We also added numerous health and safety improvements and handicapped accessibility features, plus cost-saving systems like better insulation and LED lighting.”


Left, Josh Parks, president of the STRIVE Advisory Board, speaks about having Asperger’s syndrome and the opportunities he’s found at STRIVE. Below, friends, family and STRIVE supporters turned out for the ribbon cutting of the revamped facility. From left, Director Pete Brown, Lindsey Foster, Haley Pass, Sen. King, Elena Johnson and Niels Doughty. (Molly Lovell-Keely photos) Left, Josh Parks, president of the STRIVE Advisory Board, speaks about having Asperger’s syndrome and the opportunities he’s found at STRIVE. Below, friends, family and STRIVE supporters turned out for the ribbon cutting of the revamped facility. From left, Director Pete Brown, Lindsey Foster, Haley Pass, Sen. King, Elena Johnson and Niels Doughty. (Molly Lovell-Keely photos) In all, STRIVE raised $1.62 million from private and corporate donations to pay for the work, a year in the making, which, Brown said, “will allow us to better serve our current clients, as well as work with additional clients in the future.” As of Tuesday, Brown said, STRIVE needs just $25,202 to complete its capital campaign and fully fund the project.

As might be expected of an organization that serves more than 950 young clients across Southern Maine, there was a large crowd on hand for the last week’s celebration – about 250 by Brown’s estimate, including Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree.

And that’s when the moment happened.

As Susie Cloutier, a young woman with Down syndrome, took to the podium to explain what STRIVE has meant to her, she seemed to catch sight of the crown for the first time, or at least in a new way.

“Oh, my gosh. It’s a lot of people,” she whispered to Brown.

Gamely, Cloutier unfolded her speech and began to speak, but only a few words in, she stopped. Frozen with stage fright, she turned and buried her head in Brown’s coat sleeve.

That’s when another STRIVE client, Chandler Hawkes, did what no one else dared – he broke from the audience and went up to Cloutier, wrapping her in a reassuring arm and offering gentle pats of encouragement.

“You can do it, Suze,” he said, softly.

Bolstered by her friend’s confidence, Cloutier quickly found the strength to go on.

“OK, I can do it now,” she announced.

In her speech, Cloutier detailed everything STRIVE offers, from classes in basic literacy and social skills, to workforce training and post-secondary education and leadership seminars.

“And most of all, I can be with my friends at STRIVE,” Cloutier said, and, having found her voice, she was able to shush the audience when it started to applaud.

“Wait,” she said, ‘I’m not done.”

“I was so proud to get a hug from Susie after her brave and beautiful speech,” said Pingree in a subsequent Facebook post.

“And for the record, sometimes I feel the same way,” she added.

But Chandler’s was not the only compelling speech of the day. The keynote address was given by Josh Parks, who started attending STRIVE classes as a 19-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome – a high-functioning form of autism. Though struggling to adapt to the world around him, Parks sought out ways to give as well as to receive. Today, he is going on his third year as president of STRIVE’s advisory board.

“Having a disability means having to work harder for the things that come easy to everyone else,” he said. “But it is hard for everyone, not just people with disabilities, to overcome being dependent on someone else to take care of you. STRIVE is in the community to help people who want to become independent.

“Life isn’t easy, and life with a disability isn’t easy,” Parks said, “but I don’t think we would be given any life if we aren’t strong enough to really live it.”

That attitude permeates throughout the staff and client base at STRIVE, Brown says. And that’s why STRIVE staffers were a little surprised when video of Hawkes’ helping hand went viral, ending up on local newscasts nationwide.

“Our goal is independence and opportunity for everyone we serve and this is a very supporting environment for everyone,” Brown said. “And so, it’s interesting, because our staff was talking about it afterward, and we didn’t have any expectation at all of this moment going viral like it did, because we see things like that every single day, just not with cameras running.”

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