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Changing lives: Donna Dwyer rebuilds dilapidated teen center, teen lives

PHOTo / Tim Greenway Donna Dwyer, executive director of My Place Teen Center, has raised money not only for programming but to refurbish the nonprofit's Westbrook site.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway Donna Dwyer, executive director of My Place Teen Center, visits with teens while doing crafts at the center in Westbrook.

When Donna Dwyer approached the at-risk teen center located in a former Westbrook church for a job interview, the building was so run down she says she almost turned around and never returned. But an inkling that she could improve the building and its visitors propelled her through a series of job interviews. What sealed the deal, though, was the final interview by 25 kids who frequented the center firing questions at her from their seats on a decrepit bench.

She patiently answered the typical teen questions: Are you mean? Do you have a lot of rules?

But one young girl took her aback, “sassy” Cassie, a 17-year-old who came from an abusive background and was homeless since age 11.

She asked, “Do you have a skill set to keep the doors open so my younger brother will still be able to come?” Says Dwyer,” My heart was singing after her comment and I thought, 'I must have this job.'” Dwyer told Cassie that she was good at raising money. “I told her I had a nonprofit heart but a business mindset. I wouldn't let the kids down.” Dwyer proudly pulls a large photo of Cassie from her office wall.

Since that day in 2011, Dwyer, the executive director of My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, has effected a Cinderella-like transformation to the building, whose roof was so weak a worker almost fell through it when it was being replaced. Though she still needs to raise $250,000 for new siding and insulation, the roof, floors and other parts of the building have been upgraded. Last year, through a grant, the mortgage was paid in full.

Dwyer started her job with a $190,000 budget, which she's since tripled. She's also attracted big money, including $100,000 from Hannaford and another $100,000 matching donation from the Cornelia Warren Community Association, as well as a $325,000 grant last December from Next Generation Foundation of Westbrook, which enabled major repairs and paying off the 40-year mortgage. Idexx also has donated a van and computers, and along with Unum, cast-off office furniture that created a large table for the children to work on crafts and a fully furnished computer room for homework, resumes and other studies.

Second chances

Since Dwyer started, says MPTC Board Member Lori Whitlock, she has acquired $200,000 in corporate in-kind goods and services and pulled in more than $1.3 million in donations and grants. MPTC serves 500 at-risk youth who are disabled, homeless, food insecure, cognitively delayed, low-income, immigrants and refugee teens aged 10-18. On an average day upwards of 80 kids visit the center, which has pool tables, lounge areas for discussion, activity centers and a cafeteria for the five hours it is open after school.

Other awards include the 2014 WCSH 6 Who Care Agency of Distinction and the 2014 Tom's of Maine 50 States for Good, which carries a $10,000 stipend.

Whitlock, who was on the MPTC committee that hired Dwyer, says her diverse background, including serving as executive director of Sweetser, a nonprofit that offers behavioral and mental health treatment and support to families, as well as her business acumen and experience writing grants made her an attractive prospect. “Her philosophy is to run MPTC with compassion and a corporate mindset,” says Whitlock. “Dwyer brought discipline to MPTC's finances, and is credited with bringing in big donors like Hannaford and Idexx.”

Dwyer also spearheaded the formation of MPTC's advisory council and diversified the board.

“She's an amazing speaker and someone with a lot of energy and persistence in fundraising,” says Whitlock. “I'm not sure when she sleeps.”

Betsy Richards, Idexx's corporate communication and community relations manager, describes Dwyer as a fireball that can't be put out. “She acts with passion and determination. No matter how tough times are, she perseveres.” Richards adds, “The MPTC is a terrific space for young people, providing at-risk youth a connection to caring adults, a safe and secure environment, and empowerment to make better choices about their lives. We are lucky that Westbrook has this teen center — it makes us a better community.”

Those descriptions fit Dwyer's decorating aesthetic as well: bright and cheery, wearing a red blouse with ruffles, she talks enthusiastically. The church door also is bright red, which she describes as inviting. Staff are told to greet the kids with a sincere smile, to let them know they and everyone else are welcome, that the center is a safe haven.

She had the church's ancient stained glass windows repaired, and put home items, like ceramic pottery, on tables throughout the recreational room to make it more comfortable. Only one item has been broken so far, she says. Even her office seems like home, with several rocking chairs, photos of her family and a corner devoted to the tennis trophies she's won over the years.

“In my world, rejection is more common than not,” she says of constantly having to ask others for money. “I'm actually shy. I don't like asking for money, but it's something I have to do.”

She adds, “I learned in sales a long time ago that no means yes. I also learned to wear red and sit up straight.”

Though her days are long, harried and filled with interruptions, she appears calm. Asked to describe herself, she says, “I'm passionate, vivacious, analytical, have a laser sharp focus and I'm impatient. But I hope I'm kind.”

Her will to fight for those who need a leg up came early, notably in 1991, when her son Timothy was born with Down syndrome. Four years later she was diagnosed with a Stage 4 cancer and told she had little time to live. She devoted her time to volunteering as an independent consultant on disabilities and special education at schools in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, her hometown. In 1998 she realized she had to shore up both her special education and business knowledge, and returned to school to get her master's degree in special education, a certificate of advanced study in educational leadership and an MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship.

As she tells the teenagers at MPTC, their current situation doesn't have to define their future, and they can change their life course through education. She even told Cassie of her own job, “you could be sitting in this chair someday.”

“Think about it — at one point in all of our lives, we will become a person with a disability. Either we are born with it, we acquire it, or by virtue of growing older, we all will be a person with a disability,” she says. “Today, at MPTC, I get to play a role in transforming young lives. And, in some instances, saving those lives. We are conducting serious business at MPTC with ramifications that will last a lifetime.”

Changing lives

James Tranchemontagne, owner of The Frog and Turtle restaurant in Westbrook and a former board member of MPTC who still opens his restaurant for MPTC fundraising events about four times a year, says one of Dwyer's biggest impacts was changing the teen center's name soon after she arrived.

Dwyer was insistent on changing the name to My Place Teen Center from the former Mission Possible Teen Center because the latter made the organization sound too religious, which hurt funding chances for grants, he says. Treanchemontagne credits Dwyer with rebranding the MPTC so that it is now hitting six-figure grants and forming new relationships with schools to catch at-risk kids earlier.

“She has a great way of marketing the needs of MPTC and getting companies to invest in it,” he says.

Despite the improvements, Dwyer is kept awake at night by the continued need for building repairs and the MPTC's meager two months of cash reserves. She's looking at Goodwill as a model as she studies and develops a business plan to assess the feasibility of purchasing an off-site health and wellness facility that could provide enhanced academic achievement, character-based education, civic engagement, job and life skills, fitness, nutrition and employment opportunities for MPTC kids and other at-risk teens in southern Maine.

“This facility would provide a reliable revenue stream for MPTC and a vetted forum for impact investors. We already have an existing location targeted and have begun preliminary discussions,” she says.

The challenge, she says, is that 75% of funders contribute one time only. “We need to get creative about funding streams, and we're working on creating an endowment now. We are a safe haven, but not having an endowment, it isn't safe. We're still growing.”

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