A nonprofit hopes to turn a Westbrook office building into housing and a cafe where juvenile offenders could live and work while they transition out of the state’s detention facility.

The Transformation Project is buying the former Ethos Marketing & Design office at 907 Main St. in Westbrook. Executive Director Ken Hawley said his faith-based group offers mentoring and life skills training to juveniles and adults in 12 correctional facilities around the state, including Cumberland County Jail in Portland and the Maine State Prison in Warren. Now, he wants to offer support outside the walls of those facilities to young adults who have been released from Long Creek Youth Development Center.

“Many kids who come out of Long Creek just go back where they came from, and consequently, many times they end up back in lockup,” Hawley said. “What we’re trying to do is give kids the chance to integrate back into the community with our arms wrapped around them.”

On the first floor of the building would be DJ’s Cafe – a bakery, catering business, performance space and coffee shop staffed by young people who are coming out of lockup – as well as offices for Transformation Project staff. On the second floor would be supervised housing for up to 10 men between the ages of 18 and 25 who are leaving Long Creek.

The nonprofit does not need any approvals from the city’s planning or zoning boards, but will host a neighborhood meeting Wednesday evening at the Westbrook Public Safety Building.

Long Creek can house about 160 juvenile offenders – male and female – from across the state. Some of these are short-term detainees who have recently been arrested; others are committed there for crimes ranging from criminal mischief to felony assault and robbery. Neither the superintendent of Long Creek nor the commissioner of the state Department of Corrections responded to requests for comment about the project.

Because each state operates its juvenile justice system differently, there is no reliable measure of a national recidivism rate for young offenders.

In Maine, a study published in 2016 found that more than a third of committed youths reoffend within a year of their release, and more than half reoffend within two years. While some juveniles are slowly integrated into the community before their release, there is no evidence this reduces his or her chances of returning to a corrections facility, the study found.

While Hawley’s program would be unique to Maine, a nonprofit called Straight Ahead operates a similar job-training program for juvenile offenders in Massachusetts. Straight Ahead does not provide housing for juveniles, but does offer job training at a cafe, a caterer, a thrift shop and a silk screening business. Barbara Picard, communications director for Straight Ahead, said only 17 percent of job training participants committed another offense in a two-year period.

“Being in the job readiness training program gives them the opportunity to fail a couple times where they would be fired somewhere else, because they’re working on their whole life and turning their life around,” she said. “They’ve got an opportunity to work those things out while they’re here.”

Hawley said he abused drugs and alcohol while growing up. He never spent time in prison, but when he began volunteering at Maine Correctional Center nearly 20 years ago, he felt a draw to the inmates he met there.

“When I look into their eyes and I get to know them, I see me,” Hawley said. “I see who I once was.”

For eight years, Hawley worked as the state director for Straight Ahead in Maine. That organization eventually pulled its resources out of the state, and Hawley started the Transformation Project to take over its mentoring and other programs. He has long wanted to mirror the job training programs Straight Ahead runs in Massachusetts, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is give kids that are coming out of Long Creek Youth Development Center the chance to integrate back into the community,” Hawley said. “We’ve got to get a place where these guys can go.”

The Transformation Project already runs a 15-week life skills course in Long Creek, and anyone who wants to live or work at 907 Main St. would need to first complete that selective and intense program. “This is for those who really want the new life,” he said.

Participants could be young men like Josh Lussier of Biddeford.

Lussier, 21, was committed to Long Creek for drug-related offenses in 2014, he said. He forged close relationships with Hawley and a chaplain there, and since his release in 2015, he calls both regularly for advice, he said. He got back into music, found a job at a call center and plans to go to college next year.

“They saw potential in me that I didn’t,” Lussier said. “They wanted me to succeed.”

Lussier said he plans to volunteer with the Transformation Project in Westbrook.

“We want to lower the recidivism rate,” he said. “We want to open a place where they don’t have to go back to where they came from. They don’t have to worry about people putting them in bad situations.”

The coffee shop will be called DJ’s Cafe in honor of a young man Hawley mentored at Long Creek. Hawley said he was talented and bright, but he struggled to readjust to life outside lockup. He was killed in 2014.

“We want to prevent them from having the same ending in their life,” he said.

A donor is helping the Transformation Project buy its future home in Westbrook, but Hawley said he still needs to raise about $500,000 to open and operate there. The housing units on the second floor could open by the end of the year, he said, but the cafe likely wouldn’t open until spring.

City Planner Jennie Franceschi said city officials have met with Hawley to learn more about his plans. The code enforcement office will need to review a change-of-use application, but the Transformation Project does not need any special approvals from the city’s planning or zoning board.

The idea has already earned the support of the Westbrook Police Department and the Westbrook Downtown Coalition.

Police Chief Janine Roberts said she supports the Transformation Project because the program helps young people make positive decisions.

“Whether Transformation Project is operating in Westbrook or not, we’re going to have people in the youth development center released into our community,” Roberts said. “Having them living and working and growing in an area where they have adults supporting them and holding them accountable and teaching them life skills is oftentimes better than them returning home or to the street.”

To Abigail Cioffi, executive director at the Downtown Westbrook Coalition, the plan is “a win-win.”

The city has long hoped for a sit-down coffee shop like DJ’s Cafe, she said, and the coalition supports the Transformation Project’s mission to help youths coming out of lockup.

“We have a business we’ve wanted for a long time and this great community organization,” Cioffi said.

Across the street from 907 Main St. are several restaurants, a furniture store and other businesses. On either side are residential properties – an apartment complex and a 3-unit condo building with first-floor work space for its residents.

Some of those neighbors are still wary.

Brad Cordes, president of the condo association next door, said he and his neighbors have concerns about safety and property values. He declined to comment further until he had learned more at the upcoming neighborhood meeting, however.

“We want to give them an opportunity to actually present their plan,” Cordes said.

Hawley said he hopes his own story can sway any critics.

“Our past mistakes don’t define us,” he said.

The neighborhood meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Westbrook Public Safety Building.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: