MACHIAS, Maine — Maine has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, for parents between the ages of 18 and 24, but fewer than 10 percent have an associate degree or higher. But in one of Maine's most poverty-stricken counties, that picture is changing thanks to a collaborative program.
Family Futures Downeast is not only breaking down economic barriers to a college degree, it is helping kids thrive alongside their parents.
For Betty Mason, going to college was a dream that was never going to happen.
"I always loved school," Mason said. "I always wanted to go back."
After high school, the single mom worked two jobs to support herself and her young daughter, Bailyn. When a family member encouraged her to apply for a new program aimed at giving working parents a shot at a college degree, she worried she wouldn't be able to juggle everything.
"I was more afraid of getting in there and not having the support and backbone with Bailyn being so young," Mason explained.
The program covers three semesters. Parents can earn 15 credits toward an associate or bachelor's degree.
The collaboration between five nonprofit and public organizations and the University of Maine at Machias and Washington County Community College provides transportation, peer support, and academic counseling to help parents stay in school.
On top of that, while parents are in night classes, their children 8 and younger are enrolled in child care centers on both campuses for free.
"They put them in jammies for us, read their stories, and brushed their teeth," Mason added.
Because of the pandemic, core courses, psychology, and community studies have migrated online. Assignments often are required to be done with their kids at home, planting seeds in the children.
"The kids are beginning to see, one, the importance of homework, and, two, they are having fun while they are doing it," Dr. Lori Schnieders, an associate professor of psychology at UMM, said.
Schnieders knows first-hand about the challenges her students face.
Schneiders earned a master's degree and a doctorate while she was raising her son as a single mom.
She started the Families Futures Downeast in 2016, after seeing the need for more educational and job opportunities in Washington County. With every new class, she helps rebuild confidence.
"You take individuals who are so beaten down and don't believe they can do anything and keep cheering," Schienders said.
More than 100 students have earned their credits so far, earning a certificate for their work. More than 75 of those students continued their college education. A number have earned bachelor's degrees and are enrolled in master's programs in education and social work. While other graduates have started their own business.
Marsha Sloan is the director of Family Futures Downeast for the Sunrise County Economic Council. As one of the program's partners, the organization helps secure funding and grants.
Sloan says this program is key to boosting the economy in Washington County, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Maine. Graduates are also inspiring a whole new generation.
"Those that have older children, their teenagers are enrolling in early college programs," Sloan said. "They are not going to be first-generation college students."
Another key to the success of the program is coaches who are in daily contact with parents to help them overcome challenges in their everyday lives, whether it's giving them gas cards, helping them fix their cars, or money to watch their kids, so they can do online learning at home.
Mason, who never made the honor roll in school, said her proudest moment was sharing her academic success with her daughter.
"The first semester I made the dean's list I opened that letter in front of her, and we both celebrated that day," Mason said, tearfully. "I didn't know that would make me cry."
Mason has stayed on that dean's list nearly every semester. She now works at a doctor’s office, is newly married, and has a toddler son named Landon.
In May, she will walk the stage again, this time earning a bachelor's degree in psychology. She hopes to become a substance use counselor one day, overcoming years of fears and doubts.
"What I heard my entire life was false," Mason said. "I can and that's all that matters. I proved it to myself."
Families Future Downeast offers financial aid and grants to students who qualify. For more information go here.