The backers of a new effort to improve the quality of life in Greater Portland didn’t start with traditional grant writing or pitching for finances.

They started with listening.

For six months, the United Way helped convene more than 90 different conversations with 2,000 locals to talk about what the community wanted to achieve most. The upshot of those meetings, and the subsequent analysis of what people said, is Thrive2027, a partnership to bring business, community, philanthropic and educational institutions together in an integrated network to drive measurable and meaningful change.

“We don’t presume to have all the answers, but we do have strategies,” said Liz Cotter Schlax, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Portland, which is coordinating the effort.

Schlax said many of the people participating in the community conversations were saying the same thing – they had concerns about being able to afford living in Greater Portland, worries about what kind of economic opportunities their kids would have and concerns about their general health and well-being, especially in the face of a national opioid crisis.

From those conversations Thrive2027 was born, a 10-year effort to make measurable progress on three goals:

Increase the quality of children’s early learning experiences so that 70 percent read proficiently at the end of third grade, up from 59 percent.

 Increase opportunities for people to build financial stability so 70 percent of households pay less than 30 percent of their income on housing, up from 65 percent.

 Improve residents’ health to achieve a 10 percent reduction in premature deaths, or roughly 500 avoided deaths per 100,000 people.

The group is a partnership among 167 organizations, with United Way acting as a facilitator. It connects work already being done by a broad spectrum of groups in the public and private sectors, making sure that their efforts are aligned, progress is measured, work is facilitated and evaluated while they remain focused on the three goals.

It was that collaborative approach that attracted Dead River Co. to Thrive2027. For the last year and a half, employees of the energy company have spent an hour a week with grade-schoolers from South Portland’s Frank I. Brown Elementary School. Each of the 10 volunteers spends half an hour reading one-on-one with second- and third-graders at its Running Hill Road headquarters, and half an hour engaging in other ways, such as drawing or playing board games.

“We’ve been a long-standing partner of United Way,” said Lisa Morrissette, director of marketing for the company. “For us, Thrive2027’s framework is what we believe in – collaborating across sectors and building partnerships, taking action and being advocates for areas we believe in.”

Education and workforce development are two areas Dead River is particularly interested in, Morrissette said. The company leapt at the chance to volunteer with the students when it was approached by Big Brothers/Big Sisters to launch this pilot program to help kids increase their reading skills, she said. Big Brothers/Big Sisters selected the school and handled the logistics, while the school provided its literacy teacher and students to make the trek to Dead River offices for the weekly encounters.

“The school, the nonprofit and us, Dead River, has worked wonderfully,” Morrissette said. “Everyone is focused on these young people.”

Morrissette said as a partner in Thrive2027, Dead River is happy to share its experiences with the reading program, which could be a model for other companies interested in helping increase reading proficiency among grade-schoolers, a heavy indicator of a student’s chances for success later in life.

FINANCIAL BACKING

The effort has drawn some of the state’s biggest players. Idexx and Hannaford have signed on as endorsers who have already started to align their programs with Thrive2027 goals. Others, like the regional Chamber of Commerce, Catholic Charities Maine, several banks, law firms, universities, health care systems and art groups have also pledged their support.

United Way of Greater Portland has donated $250,000 to get the ball rolling and expects to earmark contributions raised through its annual campaign to the program. The John T. Gorman Foundation also will designate its Portland-area giving to organizations working on the first two goals, reading proficiency and affordability, said its president, Tony Cipollone.

“The key to the success of Thrive2027 is twofold: financial support and community partners working together in a different way,” Cipollone said in a statement announcing the launch of the program. He also is co-chairman of the Thrive2027 oversight council. “These initiatives are making changes in our systems to create an environment of opportunity for all. We’re excited with this first step and anticipate many more over the next 10 years.”

The group expects to have its first progress report ready by April, said Schlax. Extensive data gathering was done in the wake of the community conversations so that each of the three goals has verifiable benchmarks to measure progress.

Schlax acknowledges that there are many organizations trying to effect change in the Portland area, many of whom are partners in Thrive2027.

“But I think what makes us different from the other groups is the breadth of our partners,” she said. “I think we are poised to do great things.”

Carol Coultas can be contacted at 791-6460 or at:

[email protected]

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