AUGUSTA — A fund recently started by the United Way of Kennebec Valley has awarded grants totaling $45,000 to two nonprofit organizations.

The Innovation Fund, established earlier this year and supported by contributions to the United Way of Kennebec Valley, is intended to support launching creative solutions and approaches that will help shape the region’s future.

The fund’s inaugural awards are:

• $30,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine for its Bigs with Badges program, a mentoring program between the Augusta Police Department and students at Gilbert Elementary School.

• $15,000 to Healthy Communities of the Capital Area for the LGBTQ+ Youth Experience Summer Supports program that is expected to kick off in 2022.

Sophie Piconi, development director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine, said her organization has wanted to introduce a program that is unique and different for the organization.

Big Brothers Big Sisters adults (Bigs) develop mentoring relationships with children (Littles) aged 5 through young adulthood.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine serves about 500 children in Androscoggin, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot, Somerset and Waldo counties, according to officials.

“All of our programs service kids,” Piconi said. “We have a community-based program and a school-based program, but we wanted something that was very specific and new and has not been done here in Maine before.”

The $30,000 Innovation Fund grant has facilitated that, she said, because one of the biggest issues in starting a new program is funding to pay the program’s costs, which include staffing, marketing and promotional materials.

“The goal of the program is to make meaningful relationships between children at Gilbert Elementary School and Augusta police officers, and, really, any first responder,” Piconi said. “The goal is to make lasting relationships, which are the reason why we’re in existence.”

For the Augusta Police Department, the program is consistent with its community policing, according to Chief Jared Mills.

“We are always looking for different ways to not only connect with our community but to have a positive influence,” Mills said.

The city’s Police Department has three resource officers who are expected to take the lead in the program, with other staff members serving as volunteers.

“Our officers already go into the schools, reading books to the children and having lunch with them,” Mills said, “so I see this as being enhanced with the Bigs with Badges program.”

The initial phase of the program is being piloted in Augusta. If successful, the initiative could be expanded to other schools in the area, according to Piconi.

“Through this pandemic, the last 18 to 24 months that we have experienced, we need to focus on positivity and pay attention to our kids, and make sure their mental health is number one,” she said. “Starting new programs and recruiting volunteers to be involved in children’s lives — that’s how we’re going to (address) issues with our kids.”

Officials with Healthy Communities of the Capital Area did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement released to the news media, Executive Director Renee Page said the grant-awarded program is expected to help meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth in southern Kennebec County by raising cultural awareness, providing parent support and drawing together community partners to create welcoming environments.

The Innovation Fund grants were awarded competitively. To apply, organizations submitted applications and made presentations to the fund’s decision-making committee.

“The entire community benefits when nonprofits can be responsive to evolving needs,” said Courtney Yeager, executive director of the United Way of Kennebec Valley. “In the wake of the pandemic, United Way and its board of directors wanted to do our part to encourage regional partnerships as the community strives to address unmet needs.”

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