By Blake Leifer

Salma, Kadija, Abdi, Amina and their families Pre-COVID
Photo by Winky Lewis Photography

Back in 2012, if you had asked Barrett Takesian where to find community youth sports programs in Southern Maine, he might not have been able to tell you. At that time, there were not nearly as many well-known programs as there are at present.

Fast forward eight years, and the picture is quite different. Today, Takesian is executive director of Portland Community Squash, one of 40 organizations in the Greater Portland area that offer programs for youth in sports and also in the arts. Another of these programs is Gateway Community Services Maine, which also serves the Lewiston area.

For over five years, Gateway Community Services Maine has helped new immigrants transition into life in the United States. Abdullahi Ali, the founder and CEO of Gateway, says listening to people is what demonstrated to him the importance of athletics in the community. “It was in listening to people that their love of sports was revealed,” he said, “especially soccer, which is so important in most parts of the world, although not necessarily in the U.S.” For many cultures, and many immigrants in Maine, soccer is the premiere athletic activity.

Ali remembered his own experience with sports back in the Dadaab refugee camp, in Kenya, prior to his resettlement in the U.S. At Dadaab, he and his friends played soccer whenever they had free time. They made their soccer balls by stuffing socks, and players used whatever they could find as goal posts – often simply two poles.

Former Gateway soccer player Mohammed Awil expressed how vital the sports programs are for youth growing up in Maine’s two largest cities. “It gives you a sense of community, while teaching you about leadership and teamwork. From what I see from my community, soccer is what holds it together,” he said.

Portland Community Squash also supports youth through programming. Their participants come from 26 different countries and speak 17 different languages. Sixty-seven percent of the participants are youth of color, 63% are first time, post-secondary degree seekers, and 27% are immigrants and refugees.

“For each student in an afterschool program, there’s three more that don’t have access but would like to be in a program,” Executive Director Takesian pointed out. This is similar to December 2020 data reported by the Afterschool Alliance, which indicates that in Maine, for every student in an afterschool program, five more would like to be in a program but don’t have access. The scale of this disparity became the driving force for Takesian to get involved in the youth sports movement.

Takesian is an alumni and former captain of the Bowdoin College squash team, and has always enjoyed playing sports. However, he believes providing sports programming alone is not enough to help youth. “So what we do is one-third squash, one-third academic support, and one-third wellness.” He believes all three components are necessary for success.

Both Takesian and Ali believe that the benefits of programs for youth are multiple. “Sports help keep youth away from drugs and give children something to look forward to,” said Ali of Gateway. He believes that the discipline that sports require, together with community support and the anti-drug tradition of many cultures, can guide youth into a healthy lifestyle.

Not all children have the opportunity to play soccer or squash in a youth program. Financial support can be hard to come by, said Takesian. “In order to remove barriers and fully support our students, Portland Community Squash has had to raise $5 million in five years.” Developing financial resources and support is a constant effort for both Gateway and Portland Squash. This will be even more true going forward, as new safety protocols are costly, and funding is even scarcer than it was before.

When immigrants arrive in the U.S., their need for community is urgent, and sports can become a lifeline, helping bridge the gap between different cultures and communities. Sports also encourage working as a team, and teamwork is clearly essential to building harmonious communities and cities in Maine. Despite their funding challenges, Gateway Community Services Maine and Portland Community Squash are providing an indispensable service to Maine by serving youth with programming.