By Amy Harris
When Angelique Bitshilualua moved to Maine five years ago, she quickly learned that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Maine’s climate may be worlds apart from that of her native DR Congo, but she said has always felt most at home outdoors, and this love for the outdoors – even in difficult weather– makes her a great fit for Portland Trail’s new position of Inclusion Coordinator.
Five years ago, she and her husband won the U.S. Department of State’s Diversity Visa Program lottery and immigrated to the U.S. with their three young children. They were among just 55,000 people from historically underrepresented countries awarded immigration visas that year. The couple had long dreamed of finding more opportunities in the U.S. for their two sons and one daughter
Those early years in Portland were challenging for the family. For the first six months, they lived in a family shelter. During that time, Bitshilualua was pregnant with her fourth child. The entire family struggled with acculturation. Life slightly improved when they found a three-bedroom apartment on outer Washington Avenue.
Her children struggled in school and were frustrated at being placed two grade levels lower than their age peers until they learned more English. Her husband found a job, but long work hours prevented him from attending any of her prenatal visits or frequent meetings at the children’s school. Bitshilualua remembers taking two city buses with her newborn to buy groceries at Hannaford.
She initially took English classes through Portland Adult Education, but after her daughter arrived, attending classes with a newborn became impossible. In Her Presence (IHP), with its Saturday classes and childcare at the Portland Public Library, was the only way for her to continue learning English. She excelled in the IHP classes, quickly developing fluency and becoming a class leader.
Before leaving DR Congo, Bitshilualua had worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross in multiple roles. With her hospitality degree and quick-thinking skills, she had a reputation for figuring out how to get things done, and “people liked that at Red Cross,” she said.
In Her Presence co-founder Claudette Ndayininahaze, as well as Mary Faulkner, Director of IHP’s Bridge to Career Fulfillment program, recognized Bitshilualua’s problem-solving and leadership skills, and soon hired her as an ambassador for an innovative collaboration between Allagash Brewing Company, Children’s Museum of Maine, and IHP. In this role, Bitshilualua enrolled IHP families in a free membership program sponsored by Allagash Brewing. In addition, she helped arrange transportation and organize groups of families to attend the Children’s Museum together, helping the space be more accessible and welcoming to Portland’s growing number of refugee and immigrant families.
Portland Trails also faced challenges in making their urban spaces welcoming and accessible to New Mainer families. Lindsay Conrad, Portland Trail’s Director of Development, said her organization realized they needed “somebody who lives and works in the community to be a better liaison to help us understand all of the barriers keeping people off of Portland Trails.” So they created an inclusion coordinator role in November 2022.
Given Bitshilualua’s success in the Children’s Museum program ambassador role, Faulkner and Ndayininahaze thought she would be an ideal candidate for Portland Trails. “Angelique is a motivated leader, an outgoing and caring woman with a desire to connect with different people. She has lived experience, excellent interpersonal skills, and a love of meeting, connecting, and engaging with new people using an open and honest approach,” said Ndayininahaze.
Meanwhile, Bitshilualua had begun getting to know the outdoors around Portland. One day, when looking for a way to get to Hannaford that was faster than taking two buses, she discovered the path around Back Cove. Not only was it a scenic outdoor walk, which helped her feel better physically and emotionally, she found that walking got her to her destination faster than the bus. Soon she regularly walked around Back Cove with her youngest daughter in a stroller – even though at the time she did not realize this was Portland Trails property, an organization that would soon hire her, and which would play an important role in her life.
Conrad said Portland Trails feels lucky that Bitshilualua’s “natural charisma and warmth immediately make people feel comfortable and excited to try new things (like walking on trails!), and her passion for community building and the outdoors have been truly inspiring to be around.” Since starting her new role, Bitshilualua has designed a survey to assess people’s knowledge of Portland Trails and their interest level in group walks or events on the organization’s properties.
As the leader of the Healthier Neighborhoods for All initiative, Bitshilualua will work to correct misinformation about outdoor exercise that keeps people from accessing the trails. The most common reasons people give for not exercising outside are that they are too busy or that it costs too much, she said. She speaks with too many people who think exercise means spending money to join a gym or buy expensive fitness equipment. She wants to show people the outdoors is free, and is right by their apartment, their temporary shelter, or their children’s school. When making presentations, she explains what “trails” means to her – an English word that does not easily translate into some other languages. She tells her audiences that trails are short pathways, and are ways to connect people to their destinations, to better health, and to each other.
Bitshilualua does worry about her community’s health. She knows first hand the stress of navigating housing, food insecurity, language barriers, a new school system, and a foreign healthcare system, while also working full time. When talking with community members, she highlights the health benefits of regular outdoor physical activity for all ages, including improved heart health, lower blood pressure, reduced obesity, improved sleep, and reduced stress.
Conrad appreciates her practical approach to increasing inclusion and accessibility: “She said you need to tell them that your trails are free, very close to their home (within a 10-minute walk of all homes in Portland), convenient, can be used by all ages, and are accessible.” By offering guided walks to immigrant and refugee community members, Bitshilualua hopes to help them “feel like they have a partner, someone to show them around, how to take the bus to various Portland Trails properties [so that they] feel a little bit more excited about getting outside.”
People interested in Portland Trails events, group walks, or having Bitshilualua do a personalized presentation at organizations or community groups, should visit trails.org/healthier-neighborhoods-for-all/ or email Bitshilualua at [email protected]. Portland Trails is planning the annual, free City At Your Feet Scavenger Hunt, July 15-16, including a specific scavenger hunt in the Riverton neighborhood. Registrations open in early July and will be posted at trails.org/events/city-feet-scavenger-hunt/.