Youth Storytelling and Community Engagement in Biddeford, ME

Every Community is Worth the Effort

In 2008, the City of Biddeford entered into a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation to initiative community visioning and planning to create a Downtown Master Plan.  (Photo credit:  Maine: An Encyclopedia,
In 2008, the City of Biddeford entered into a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation to create a Downtown Master Plan. (Photo credit: Maine: An Encyclopedia,

An Inclusive-Planning Process 

In 2008, the City of Biddeford began a new chapter in its vibrant history when it entered into a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation to develop a Downtown Master Plan.  The Orton Family Foundation is an organization that works with residents of small cities and towns to identify local assets, values, and priorities in an effort to support community-led planning.  After applying for and receiving a grant from Orton for $125,000 ($116,700 in-kind), the community kicked off what was known as the Heart and Soul Community Planning process.  A three-year initiative, Heart and Soul encompassed three main phases:  community storytelling, neighborhood meetings, and the development of the downtown Master Plan.  The process strove to engage a diverse and broad set of voices from the community to ensure an accurate and inclusive planning effort.

“We really focused on hearing from voices that aren’t usually heard,” says Rachael Weyand, former executive director of Heart of Biddeford, the city’s main street organization.  “We spent a lot of time identifying populations that should be at the table.”  Biddeford’s youth were one of those sought-after voices and eventually became one of the most active and contributing groups during all stages of the process.

Place-Based Education and Storytelling

Early in the community visioning process, Weyand and Heart of Biddeford’s Youth Coordinator Holli Andrews looked for a teacher in the local high school who they could work with to engage students in the larger community.  In English teacher Carolyn Gosselin they found a partner who was enthusiastic, committed to the process, and well-liked and respected by the students at Biddeford High School School.  Gosselin’s “Senior English Perspectives in Literature” course was a natural fit to link classroom instruction with community-based learning, as one of the course units focuses on community and the oral storytelling tradition.

The collaboration between Gosselin and Andrews led to their development of the “LearnLocal Place-Based Education Curriculum,” which aims to see “students learn about real issues while simultaneously creating a voice for local youth in municipal decision-making.”  The curriculum comprises four phases:  finding a local issue, gathering stories, identifying values, and organizing results through student-led discussions.  (Click here to learn more about this curriculum and to download lesson plans and other resources).

In preparation for their upcoming storytelling and community projects, classes were held for students to share ideas about what they did and didn’t like about Biddeford and to express ways they thought the city could become a better place to live.  These sessions were an important kickoff to the larger student work in the community.  “Kids get so excited to have someone ask them how they feel about their town,” says Andrews.

Students interviewed family, friends, and neighbors to create videos which they edited and shared with classmates (Photo credit:  Orton Family Foundation)
Students interviewed family, friends, and neighbors to create videos which they edited and shared with classmates (Photo credit: Orton Family Foundation)

Carolyn Gosselin agrees:  “It comes down to empowerment.  It is important that students be asked to participate.”  Part of that empowerment occurred by actively showing the students that their voices were truly being heard and incorporated into the planning process.  Comments and opinions were always written down on paper, typed up, or posted on the walls to show students that their thoughts were part of the larger community conversation.  Creating “word clouds” was a popular and fun way to capture larger themes that developed during the conversations.

An important part of the place-based education curriculum developed by Gosselin and Andrews is the learning that takes place outside of the classroom, through gathering stories, touring the community, and participating in community meetings and events.  Armed with flip cameras, students interviewed family, friends, and neighbors to document Biddeford’s history, people, and values.  Holli Andrews notes that through conducting the interviews, many students “became envious” of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences growing up in a vibrant Biddeford.  Through the interviews, they really became “dreamy about what it could be like” to live in a town that was alive and thriving, she said.  (Click here to watch some of the student-produced interview videos).

Field trips were arranged for the students to visit the downtown area and the mill complexes, mapping their travels and adventures using GPS.  For many students, this was their first time venturing into the downtown area, a place that many had been told to stay away from while growing up.  These trips ignited new student interest in downtown, as many were attracted by the history, architecture, and possibility of reviving the area into a place they would want to visit more often.

Students were an integral part of community conversations about the future of Biddeford.  (Photo credit:  Heart of Biddeford)
Students were an integral part of community conversations about the future of Biddeford. (Photo credit: Heart of Biddeford)

Students were active participants in the numerous neighborhood meetings organized during the Heartworks process.  These public meetings were designed to discuss issues of importance for improving the downtown area.  Students had a strong presence at these gatherings, which attracted over 300 people in the spring and summer of 2010. By working side by side with adults in the community, students also learned valuable skills about public speaking, working as a team, and advocating for themselves.  “Engage youth in the downtown” became one of the seven key issues that were eventually identified through these meetings – another primary reason youth are such an important part of the final downtown master plan.

“Working in the community gives you opportunities to connect with people on a deep level that you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” says Biddeford High School senior Tom Laverriere.  “After establishing some connections, my motivation to stay involved is knowing that I can make a difference.”   After becoming active in Biddeford’s community planning, Tom says that “in my opinion, every community is worth the effort.  If you keep trying, people can’t ignore you.”

Bringing the Mills Back to Life

Students in Biddeford have not just been learning about the town’s history, they have been actively engaged in bringing some of that history back to life.  In fall 2011, the Biddeford High School drama program and National Honor Society partnered with the Biddeford Mills Museum to organize “ghost tours” of the Pepperell Mill Company buildings.  Local high school student Victoria Eon was a driving force in creating these tours, which developed from a smaller tour she led in the summer 2011 for the museum’s Summer Showcase.  Her connection to Biddeford and the mills runs deep.  “In 1960, my grandparents emigrated from Canada in pursuit of a better life, a better future for their children and grandchildren,” she says.  “They sought work at the Biddeford mills as laborers.”

Victoria Eon, performing as Catherine Cotton, during one of the historical tours of the mills. (Photo courtesy Victoria Eon)
Victoria Eon, performing as Catherine Cotton, during one of the historical tours of the mills. (Photo courtesy Victoria Eon)

Victoria and other students worked with teacher Carolyn Gosselin to research events that occurred at the mills and incorporated them into stories that would be performed during the tour.  “As advocates for the museum, Carolyn and I ensured that the stories were strictly based in historical events, for historical accuracy is paramount in preserving the museum’s integrity,” says Victoria.    The stories gathered and eventually performed by student actors during the tour of the mill complex included the tragic lives of local women Catherine Cotton and Mary Bean, a Native American curse placed on the nearby Saco River, and the Spanish flu epidemic that devastated the city’s Albanian Muslim community.  Almost 300 residents toured the mills during these ghost tours, led by 40 high school students.

Other tours have been organized, focusing on different periods and themes in Biddeford’s history, such as the impact of the Great Depression on the mills, the manufacturing of the Vellux blanket, and lives of mill girls.  The tours continue to be a success and are a part of the city’s larger effort to attract visitors through heritage tourism.  “No matter what the occasion, events like these get people excited by their community and its history.  It gives them something to be proud of.  It’s really great to see,” says Tom Laverriere.

‘This is Where I Grew Up, and It’s Awesome’

Though Biddeford continues to face economic challenges resulting from years of decline and the effects of the current economic downturn, things are looking up for Biddeford’s residents, both in terms of community pride and opportunities for economic progress.  “On a greater scale, my hometown’s views of itself have changed,” observes Victoria Eon, now a freshman at McGill University.  “It is not a dead-end at the end of the Industrial Revolution.  It is not a sleepy Maine town to escape from when college-time rolls around.  There is promise for development.  My neighbors feel grounded, rooted by their shared history.”

Delilah Poupore, Heart of Biddeford’s current executive director, agrees.  “One of the reasons Biddeford is leaping off is because we now have a stronger foundation and have pride in our history and roots,” she says.  She points to the new businesses and retail that have opened downtown and in the renovated North Dam Mill complex, currently home to around 70 commercial tenants and 81 residential apartments.  “We really love the mixed-use aspect” of the project, says Chuck Morgan, Director of Economic and Community Development at Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission (SMRPC).  “It is creating jobs, generating a tax base, and providing customers for downtown businesses,” he says.  SMRPC worked closely with Doug Sanford of the North Dam LLC to provide funding for assessment and remediation, utilizing EPA Brownfields Assessments grants and Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) loans.

The community-based learning and participation in the master planning process has been a transformative experience for many students.  (Photo credit:  Orton Family Foundation)
The community-based learning and participation in the master planning process has been a transformative experience for many students. (Photo credit: Orton Family Foundation)

Perhaps some of the biggest changes in Biddeford are the intangible ones, felt in the hearts of residents, particularly the youth.  “Before there was so much low morale,” says Poupore. “The storytelling did so much to rekindle pride.”  The community-based learning and participation in the master planning process has been a transformative experience for many students who have a new appreciation for Biddeford and its history.  No longer is Biddeford a place that young people are embarrassed to call home.  Holli Andrews notes that the student conversation has shifted from “I can’t wait to leave” to “I can’t wait to come back after college and see what’s new and different.”

Tom Laverriere is one of those students deeply impacted by his active participation in the community.  “[Biddeford’s] becoming a better place to live all the time…I want to check in regularly, even stay involved if I can,” he says.  “Getting involved in the community has given me an incredible sense of pride.  Part of the reason I want to visit is so I can look back and say, ‘I helped do this.  This is where I grew up, and it’s awesome.’  Because it is – and I helped make it that way.”


The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.



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Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

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Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.

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As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

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