“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

This statement from Nelson Mandela was up on the screen, in front of which stood the amazing young women of the Pihcintu Multicultural Choir of Portland, all of whom arrived in Maine to escape famine, war, bloodshed and political turmoil in their home countries.

Their songs were inspiring, as was everything else at the wonderful “Champions for Children” event hosted by the Maine Children’s Alliance last week in Lewiston.

The evening was something I wish you all could have experienced.

Sue Mackey Andrews received the 2015 Director’s Award for her career helping Maine teachers and others understand adverse childhood experience and promoting resilience in children, families and communities. Linda lit up when Sue’s name was announced, because Sue came to Mount Vernon to help our teachers understand and deal with this issue.

“We’ve got a lot to do,” Sue said. “There’s no such thing as pulling yourself up by your boot straps. You have to have the boots and help putting them on.”

Well, Sue’s been helping put those boots on for kids all over the state, driving nearly 50,000 miles a year to do that.

A man I have long admired, Jim Wellehan, received the Corporate Award for demonstrating that treating employees well is good for business.

Lamey Wellehan, his Maine-based family-owned shoe company, pays the highest minimum wage in the state and provides excellent health and other benefits to its employees. Jim is also a strong leader in the conservation community. He told great stories of his early life, when he “wanted to save the world,” and spent a year teaching in South Africa, where segregation was harsh.

The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Judith Feinstein for her work to improve oral health for Maine children and families, particularly by expanding dental care to kids unlikely to ever see a dentist.

The event’s emcee gave a wonderful example of a 16-year-old boy that Judy helped in rural Piscataquis County. Most people would have given up after encountering just half the obstacles that were put up between this young man and his dental needs. But not Judy.

The Individual Award went to Nakia Dana, the education resource coordinator for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township.

I’ve been privileged to get to know and work with Nakia’s husband, state Rep. Matt Dana. Nakia is widely admired for her tireless work to make sure Passamaquoddy kids reach their full potential.

I really enjoyed hearing about Don Sanders, the “Out of the Box” Award winner. He’s the Topsham-area school bus driver who created a literacy and mentoring program on his bus by pairing older students with younger ones for shared reading time.

“When I look in the mirror and see the kids reading, laughing and talking to each other, it brings a smile to my face and I feel good know that something this simple can be so beneficial,” he said. Indeed.

Donna Dwyer, CEO of My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, the recipient of the Youth Award, told us that some of the kids “carry their lives in their backpacks, because they don’t know where they’ll be sleeping. Our bright red doors open a whole new world for these kids.”

But it was when we heard from one of those kids, Lexi, that my eyes filled with tears.

Lexi had given up on life, spent most of her time in bed, and dropped out of school, when Donna offered her an internship if she’d go back to school.

Lexi did, graduated from high school, and is now working at the Teen Center serving other kids.

What is the most important thing the kids get there? “They learn they are loved,” she said, amidst tears of her own. Powerful stuff, my friends.

There was one other award winner I’ll tell you about next week. I hope these people — who we are so fortunate to have working in our state — and their stories will inspire and motivate you to reach outside your own comfort zone to help children who are not nearly as comfortable and secure.

Three days after the children’s alliance event, Linda and I were in Camden for a presentation by members of our grandson Vishal’s class who dressed as and acted as renowned world leaders. Vishal, who spent his first three years in an orphanage in India, was Nelson Mandela.

It reminded me of Mandela’s comment, up on that screen at the awards ceremony: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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