written by Laurel Brauns | photo by Aubrie LeGault
Throughout her 20S, Pippa Arend led the life of a Portland artist and punk. It was the ‘90s, and after earning her bachelor’s degree in design from Marlboro College in Vermont, and living in Poland for a few years, she dyed her hair fire engine red and started her own furniture company. Yet something was missing.
“I started having an inkling that maybe there was a creative solution to my desire to work independently but also responsibly for my community,” Arend, now 40, says.
She began volunteering, and eventually working for, a Salvation Army program that assisted homeless youth in getting their high school diplomas. Six months into her position as arts coordinator in 2001, the whole program was cut due to federal budget constraints. Arend and her two co-workers from Salvation Army, Beth Burns and Joy Cartier, shared a vision for a new kind of developmental mentoring program, and p:ear was born. The acronym stands for project: education, art, recreation—three elements that represent the core of the nonprofit’s services for homeless youth ages 15 to 24.
“The model we use is developmental, not incremental,” Arend explains. “First we offer a safe space with access to food, books, art supplies, musical instruments, and people to talk with who are engaging and respectful.”
It is during this stage that the kids first walk through p:ear’s doors in Portland’s Old Town district and encounter others kids in similar situations working on art projects, learning to play guitar or simply sitting by the window and reading. They are treated with respect, care and love and begin to see the teachers at p:ear as adults they can trust and rely on. Healthy, fresh food is always available to p:ear students Tuesday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Restaurants such as Higgins, Cha Cha Cha! and Old Wives’ Tales provide gourmet lunches. Star chefs volunteer monthly to prepare meals there.
“Our entire mission around food is really that you can’t do anything if you’re hungry,” says Arend. “It’s a great tool for community involvement—a way of letting these kids know they are being supported and nurtured by our community through food.”
One of p:ear’s students, Leeba, 21, speaks with the eloquence of a sociology professor. She’s been diagnosed with a range of psychological disorders, from bipolar to schizoaffective. She once ran her own catering company, but her sporadic bouts with mental illness have made it difficult to maintain a steady job. Although she’s sought help from a long list of mental and youth assistance organizations, she found p:ear to be the best fit. Her mentors empower her and motivate her, she explains. In her first week in the program, for example, they discovered her cooking background and put her in charge of cooking some meals for the group.
“Other places that give you the bare minimum of survival set people up to be institutionalized,” says Leeba. “Here, if you want to put something into this place, they’ll bend over backwards to make space for you. You’re given respect. You’re given opportunity.”
While Leeba has found a deep connection with art and cooking at p:ear, Luis, 21, credits his experiences in the outdoors as one of the most beneficial aspects of the program. On this particular day, Luis had just returned from a cross-country ski trip on Mt. Hood with Nate Engkjer, p:ear’s wilderness programs director. Luis earned his G.E.D. with help from his p:ear mentors and plans to enter college in the fall to study aviation maintenance. In p:ear’s arc of development, Luis is in the final transitional phase, as he prepares to “graduate” from the program.
“In transition, they are actually transforming from a value-system based on survival, to one based on thriving, community, support and being part of something larger than themselves,” says Arend. “This is where the actual maturation happens in young people’s lives. They are starting to see themselves as having a future, as someone who deserves to grow up.”
Unlike many programs of its kind, p:ear is funded entirely through private donations, grants and through its annual fundraiser, p:ear Blossoms, a dinner and auction May 4 in Portland at the Historic Yale Union Laundry Building.
To get involved go to pearmentor.org