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‘He Livens the Group Right Up’ — Checking in With STRIVE U’s First Graduates

Noel Thompson (left) and Jeff Goranites (right) were among several graduates of the first STRIVE class.

This month, seven young adults with developmental disabilities are opening their mailboxes and finding out that they’ve been accepted to STRIVE U, a first-of-its-kind postsecondary education and training program based in South Portland.

Students learn to live and work as independently as possible and reach their own potential along the way. We met the first STRIVE class back in 2004, and recently checked in with several graduates to see how they’re doing more than a decade later.

This is the first of a two-part report. Next week, we’ll check in with another member of the STRIVE U class, Julie Jermann.

Back in 2004, Noel Thompson and Jeff Goranites were college roommates who were learning how to manage an apartment, go grocery shopping, keep a checkbook and make their own meals, like scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Like other STRIVE students, the two had drop-in supervision from a resident advisor and a support staff. They practiced riding the bus to get to school and work, enrolled in introductory college courses for credit and met regularly with job coach Dick Wigton of Talent Tree, who helped them fulfill a basic requirement of STRIVE: finding work.

“When we pick out the company for you all, then we’ll have to sit down and talk about that, and I’ll have you meet people from the company and decide if it’s a good place for you to work,” Wigton says.

“Like the interview,” Thompson says.

“The interview, exactly,” Wigton says. “Like we had in my office that time.”

More than a decade later Thompson and Goranites are employed and living on their own in separate apartments. Thompson likes the fact that he doesn’t need quarters to do his laundry.

Noel Thompson

“Very good place with a laundry debit card machine,” he says.

Thompson has become comfortable with technology, he says. He’s got his own iPhone that he uses for many things, including listening to Pandora and playing games. He’s also not intimidated about using public transportation.

He regularly rides the bus to his job at TD Bank, where he has worked for nearly a decade.

“I work in the mailroom, but before, I used to work doing credit reports on the computer upstairs before I started downstairs,” Thompson says.

Asked which he likes better, Thompson says working in the mailroom.

And Goranites? For starters, he’s a part-time DJ and peer mentor at STRIVE’s Friday night socials, where teens and young adults with developmental disabilities come to dance, play games and hang out. He’s also in charge of the soda machine, where he helps people make change and pick their selections.

During the week, Goranites is a maintenance worker at STRIVE, mowing lawns in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter and keeping the building clean. But come Friday nights, STRIVE team leader Cameron Provencher says Goranites is the life of the party, a guy who loves to cut a rug.

“He definitely loves to dance and his moves are bar none. He livens the group right up. Dance competitions every week,” he says.

Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public
Maine Public
Jeff Goranites

Now in their 30s, Thompson and Goranites say they’ve learned a lot about life on their own since they graduated from STRIVE U. And they shared a few tips for the incoming class.

“Never leave your dirty, wet clothes in the washing machine. Put them away or keep it when they’re done,” Thompson says.

He says he learned his lesson the hard way, when he went on a long trip and forgot about the clothes he had left in the washing machine. He also recommends not trying to walk to Hannaford alone at night, for obvious reasons.

And Goranites has advice, too.

“Do not leave your keys in your apartment. You can’t get back in,” he says. “I’m way on top of my keys now.”

Both Thompson and Goranites say they love their independence. They still get help from support staff with shopping and other tasks, but they require fewer services because of the education and training they got through STRIVE U.

They’ve also remained close friends with their peers. Thompson still gets together once a week with STRIVE alumni for “guys night.” And both are pretty resourceful.

Goranites says if he had one wish, it would be to be able to drive.

“I cannot really drive but usually my brother is the one who drives now. You need to be aware of what’s around you and parking and your side-view mirrors and everything else,” he says.

While they may have some limitations, Goranites and Thompson aren’t discouraged by them. They’ve figured out what it takes to have a happy life.

“Having fun and doing a lot of hard work,” Goranites says.

“A happy life is like doing what you want to do. To know what to do and doing the right things,” Thompson says.

And for that, they credit their parents and the skills they’ve learned at STRIVE.

This story was made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.