AUGUSTA — Amanda Bartlett’s childhood was not so different from that of many students in Augusta Public Schools, where 60 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches because of low family income.
Now a member of the Augusta school board, Bartlett was raised by a single mother in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Augusta. They couldn’t afford a car, much less horizon-broadening vacations.
But a few institutions helped Bartlett rise above her beginning. In both her professional life and her civic engagement, she’s working to give a similar leg up to children and families like hers.
Bartlett, 34, is the winner of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce Young Professional Award. That award and others will be presented at the chamber’s annual banquet on Jan. 24 at the Augusta Civic Center.
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Peter Thompson said Bartlett came to the award committee’s notice as a one-time vice president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance and current president of the Friends of Lithgow Library.
In her day job, though, Bartlett has built a career in housing services and became the new director of the Augusta Housing Authority in December.
“Her whole professional life has been an interesting challenge in seeing wrong and righting it,” Thompson said. “It’s very impressive what she’s done.”
Bartlett earned a degree in criminal justice from the University of Maine at Augusta with the goal of becoming a state trooper, but she couldn’t manage the job’s hours as a single mother.
Bartlett worked for a while in the Bureau of Identification within the Maine State Police but felt she had virtually no opportunities for advancement because she wasn’t a sworn officer, so she applied for a job at the Maine State Housing Authority.
She was working for MaineHousing in late 2011 when a newspaper investigation exposed unsafe conditions in Norway-area apartments and poor oversight of the program that provided federal Section 8 vouchers to many of the people living in the apartments.
Bartlett helped relocate tenants into suitable housing and wrote a corrective action plan. She says the case ignited a passion in her to ensure that everyone has access to safe and affordable housing.
“That was a real life-changing experience for me, to see people living in conditions that were just completely unlivable, and knowing that landlords knew that their tenants were living in those conditions and were able to sleep at night,” she said. “I can’t comprehend how somebody could do that. The biggest takeaway for me was that that kind of thing could happen anywhere and probably does happen everywhere.”
Bartlett had been working on the side to provide inspection, training and consulting services to housing providers, and after the corrective plan was in place, she left MaineHousing to expand her business, Bartlett Inspection Services.
In December she made another transition to become Augusta Housing Authority’s new director. The agency oversees the Section 8 program in Augusta and surrounding communities.
Augusta is facing a housing challenge now because the city has closed about 65 units because of safety code violations, and more have been lost in fires.
Bartlett said she wants to use a community approach in which the Augusta Housing Authority works closely with landlords, tenants, code enforcement and other social services so that everyone knows their rights and obligations and knows what steps to take if there’s a problem.
Outside work, Bartlett’s community involvement is very much driven by her experiences growing up in Augusta.
As someone who grew up downtown, she was excited to work with other community leaders and business owners to rethink what the area could offer and help bring more people there.
As an offshoot of a project that she worked on in the Chamber of Commerce’s Kennebec Leadership Institute, Bartlett is also one of the co-founders of Literacy Lane, which recently gained nonprofit status and will soon start distributing books to low-income children.
Working in housing, Bartlett said, she has realized there are children that many programs don’t reach — they’re “invisible” because they don’t get out of the house. So programs that give books to children at the doctor’s office, for example, won’t work for children whose parents don’t take them to the doctor.
Literacy Lane will see other avenues for getting books to kids, such as housing authorities, public health nurses and other social service agencies.
When Bartlett was a child, she and her mother could always walk to Lithgow Library even when they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. She’s devoted to the library and as president of the Friends of Lithgow Library is leading the capital campaign to raise money for the library’s expansion.
Bartlett said the books, programming and staff at Lithgow changed her life.
“I think that, no matter what our personal circumstances, whether you’re looking at poverty or middle-class suburbia, those circumstances really form a box that defines our sense of normalcy,” she said. “And for me, Lithgow cut holes in that box and allowed me to see the world outside my circumstances and imagine all the possibilities for myself.”