New program introduces asylum seeker students to the Maine outdoors
On a warm, sunny day in the Rangeley Lakes region of western Maine this summer, a dozen or so teenagers were learning the basics of canoeing.
Among them was 12 year-old Isabel Muaka, originally from Angola. She said getting out into nature was a welcome break from day-to-day life at a crowded emergency homeless shelter, where she had been living with her family.
"It’s really cool to come here," she said in Portuguese. "It’s more fun than staying there."
After a brief primer, the group hit the water, and immediately ran into some headwinds, sending the first couple of boats spinning off in the opposite direction.
Eventually, the campers got a handle on their canoes, and cut a winding path upriver. After about a mile, the fleet came ashore at a shady campsite, and stops for lunch.
"I didn't think that the current was that strong right there," said Amanda Laliberte, with the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, who was leading the trip for a program called #WeOutside. "But it was just enough with that wind to really keep giving them a challenge."
She said even though the kids in her canoe struggled to move in a straight line, they put the hammer down - paddling hard - when other groups threatened to overtake them.
"They were giggling the entire time," Laliberte said. "And every now and again when they would see another boat paddle up to us, they would hammer, hammer, hammer, and then go all giggly."
#WeOutside is the brainchild of Moon Machar, wellness coordinator at the Maine Association for New Americans.
"We are taking groups of new Mainers out into the beautiful nature in Maine," she said, "to help them be able to experience and find home in spaces where, predominantly, people of color really aren't really utilizing, or don't feel welcomed."
Isabel Muaka said she has enjoyed the day overall, but was not sold on the whole canoeing thing.
"Because we were out there in the middle," she said in Portuguese. "And we were thinking the boat could flip upside down."
13 year-old campmate Esther Raul, also of Angola, said she has enjoyed the program, which she learned about through friends.
"Everyone was signing up, so I wanted to sign up as well. Then I heard that they wanted to teach us some things, like what we saw here, paddling, hiking in the forest, and I liked it a lot," she said. "I feel alive."
As campers splash around in the water by the boat launch, Moon Machar said this was exactly what she wanted the program to look like.
"A lot of them have a lot of big responsibilities with siblings and things that have been placed on them, because of the housing crisis, because of that desperation," she said. "And so that laughter that I hear in the background is absolutely incredible. And that's really been my goal."
Machar said given how much interest there was in the summer program, she's decided to extend it into the fall and winter. She said the trips will involved ice fishing, skiing, showshoeing, and huts and trails expeditions.
A video of this story was also produced for the Maine Public series Borealis. Watch here.