The Reed School

A New Home for Children's Odyssey

Newly renovated Reed School: home to Children’s Odyssey (right), and future affordable housing units (left)

Using State Historic Tax Credits, CEI provided financing to bridge remediation and renovation costs to move Children’s Odyssey to the historic Reed School in Portland. After 25 years, Children’s Odyssey, a nonprofit childcare center focused on kids with developmental disabilities, had outgrown its capacity with 75 children enrolled.

“Over the years we have operated out of a variety of locations and we’ve made it work, but we quickly outgrew the spaces and they were never a perfect fit,” said Susan McCormick, Director at Children’s Odyssey.

Management identified the mothballed Reed School on Homestead Ave in Portland, and the organization worked with CEI to purchase the State Historic Tax Credits and secure a bridge loan for its expansion.

“John and Daniel [from CEI] have been instrumental to the Reed project,” said Heather Lumb of Developers Collaborative.

Classroom at the new Reed School location

As a women-owned, operated, and controlled business, Children’s Odyssey has established a reputation in the community as an organization that is meeting the needs of an often-underserved population. The childcare facility primarily works with children with autism or behavioral problems between the ages of two and five. The specialized approach and 100% Department of Education certified staff see remarkable progress in the children who go through the program, and in some instances, complete elimination of symptoms.

Mayor Ethan Strimling with Children’s Odyssey directors at the Reed School ribbon cutting ceremony in August 2018

Children’s Odyssey currently employs 24 staff, and the expansion will create 10 to 11 new positions by early 2019. With a low turnover rate, and several employees who have been with the organization for more than ten years, the management of Children’s Odyssey is proof that offering quality jobs to employees pays off. With competitive wages, paid vacation time, insurance benefits, and paid training and certification of all teachers, the management strives to create a desirable work environment. People go into the special needs education field because of their passion for helping children, but they stay at places like The Children’s Odyssey because of the team-oriented inclusivity, open and frequent communication, and notable benefits.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony in August, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling spoke about the need for Universal Pre-K and that of the more than 500 children in Portland needing Pre-K services, only 120 are currently served. Growing institutions like Children’s Odyssey are critical in meeting the need.

“The mission at Children’s Odyssey is such that those children who won’t get a spot elsewhere will get one here,” said Strimling.

Neighbors of the new Reed School location are offering a tremendous amount of support for the project and are actively determining how some of the two-and-a-half acres of green space can be shared for community uses.

The Captain’s Catch

Deborah Hamblen-Wood, owner of The Captain’s Catch, and Ruth Cash-Smith, CEI Women’s Business Advisor

In late March, Deborah Hamblen-Wood began working with Women’s Business Advisor Ruth Cash-Smith on plans to lease the Castine take-out, located right next to where the State of Maine Maritime Academy training ship docks.

Over the next few months, Deb purchased equipment, finalized a menu, conducted a pricing analysis, painted a fun sign, and stocked up on supplies.  The only thing she didn’t need to order was fresh lobster, caught by her partner Walt, captain of F/V Western Bay.

The Captain’s Catch Take-Out launched on May 20 to amazing community support and outstanding reviews.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever guessed that I would be (a) running a take out in Castine, (b) purchasing sliced pickles by the five-gallon tub and (c) making wonderful new friends along the way,” said Deb.

Mahala’s Day Spa

Changing a Business Model to Benefit Employees

Five years into owning and operating Mahala’s Day Spa, Hiedi Hayden had already operated in two different spaces, and renovated a third, tripling in size, as the growth of her business pushed expansion after expansion. “In order to continue growing, we needed to look at the business model,” Hayden said. “The original business model was working, but I knew that we needed to change to continue to grow over the next five years.”

Hiedi Hayden, owner of Mahala’s Day Spa in Manchester, Maine

Mahala’s Day Spa began as a booth rental establishment, where employees pay a set fee to have access to a dedicated space within the spa. After five years of operating in this manner with continued growth, Hayden knew they needed to reconsider Mahala’s business model. With booth rentals, spa management can’t enforce products or dress code, making it difficult to create a consistent experience for all clients. Establishing an expectation of professionalism and quality of service was key for Hayden, and with the continued growth of the business, she knew she needed to reconsider the way she was managing the spa.

Hayden reached out to the Small Business Development Center in August of 2017 and began working with CEI Master Certified Business Advisor, Brad Swanson. She knew the shift to operating the business as an employee manager required significant changes. Typically, only very large destination spas offer benefits to employees; small, privately owned spas can rarely offer benefits to employees. Hiedi saw this transition as an opportunity and motivating factor in shifting away from the booth rental model.

“Working with my business advisor was instrumental in relieving anxiety and giving me confidence. He listened to my vision and was supportive in finding a way to offer benefits to the hard-working people in the industry who deserve it.” –Hiedi Hayden, owner, Mahala’s Day Spa

With the new business model in place as of early March, Hayden has retained all but one staff members and is now able to offer Mahala’s Day Spa employees retirement contributions, health insurance, paid vacation, paid trainings, and opportunities for continuing education. “One of our massage therapists,” she said, “has really blossomed with the change. She’s more involved, more social, and is helping us define new products.” Since the transition, Hayden has hired three new employees, re-hired a past booth renter who returned because of the shift to employee status, and has seen two employees step up into leadership roles in the business.


Niyat Catering

Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine in Maine

In November 2016, PROPEL, CEI, Fork Food Lab, Maine Access Immigrant Network, and the Maine Public Health Association collaborated to co-host a promotional Taste the World event to bring together the increasingly diverse Greater Portland community over a shared love of food. The success of that event led to the development of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Program, which supports immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs in the culinary field in Maine through a multi-pronged approach.

This approach includes promotion at regular Taste the World community building events, and the provision of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Scholarship that covers the cost of a three month membership at Fork Food Lab, ServeSafe Certification, Department of Agriculture License, and insurance for one year.  It also includes business support from CEI’s Start Smart program, a program that offers free, confidential business counseling for New Americans starting or expanding a business in Maine.

As the first recipient of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Scholarship, Aklilu Tsaedu, owner of Niyat Catering, was able to launch his Ethiopian catering business at Fork Food Lab.

Aklilu Tsaedu, owner of Niyat Catering based in Portland

“Without the help, I wouldn’t have been able to start. Everything really worked well. I don’t expect to continue to get help, but the little jumpstart has allowed me to get going,” said Tsaedu.

When he moved to Maine 12 years ago from his home country, Ethiopia, he quickly learned that people were looking for a variety of healthy foods. His love for cooking traditional Ethiopian food, which is known for being very nutritious, coupled with the opportunity he saw in Portland, was what made him want to start a food business.

With support from CEI’s Start Smart program, he developed a business plan to begin with catering, rather than his initial idea, a restaurant. He received a microloan from CEI which allowed him to supplement the Scholarship and purchase kitchen equipment and pay for a catering license and some other startup costs.

Tsaedu began selling his food at Portland Adult Education, and at local events including the annual Festival of Nations and CEI’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, all of which gave him some visibility in the community. Being a member at Fork Food Lab has also provided exposure for the business without paying money for advertising. “Fork always has events and open houses for visibility,” he said. “It is a wonderful kitchen and a very good place to work.” Tsaedu’s success has allowed him to continue on as a member of Fork Food Lab after his scholarship has ended.

Tsaedu’s food will be featured at this year’s Taste the World event on November 8th at Fork Food Lab. The event will be sponsored by Machias Savings Bank as a part of their sponsorship of PROPEL’s In Focus Series. The event will serve as a fundraiser to make another New Mainer Entrepreneur Scholarship available.  Machias Savings Bank has offered to generously match up to $1,250 in funds raised at the event.

Quoddy Bay Lobster

Entrepreneurship in Eastport

Family-owned and operated Quoddy Bay Lobster is an iconic Eastport, Maine, attraction, currently open for its 12th season. Famous for its lobster, the business owns and maintains a wharf, a critical part of working waterfront infrastructure, and also manages a seaside restaurant, fish market, and most recently an ice cream shop run by the youngest members of the Griffin family.

The Griffin family of Eastport, Maine.

Through the Working Waterfront program and with help from CEI, the family owns their own wharf which has been built by the family. “All of the wood we use is cut by the sawmill that my husband owns from family wood lots. I mobilize the Quoddy Bay owners, (her husband, son, and two brothers-in-law) and together our family gets things done,” said Shelly Griffin, who co-manages the restaurant with her daughter-in-law Sara. “During peak season at the restaurant, we pick over 200 pounds of lobster every day.  Our seafood has won numerous awards and our customers rave about the view of Campobello right across the bay.”

With 21 employees, Quoddy Bay Lobster is open five days a week, and six in the summer, for five months a year. The family diversifies its workflow during the off-season by operating numerous other local businesses.

Views from Quoddy Bay Lobster.

“Eastport is a little town with a whole lot going on!” –Shelly Griffin, Quoddy Bay Lobster


Triple Trouble

Access to Capital in a Time of Need

The Griffin Family with Triple Trouble, August 2015

When the Eastport breakwater collapsed on December 4, 2014, it severely damaged several boats in Eastport, Maine. One of those boats was Double Trouble II, owned by Brent and Sara Griffin. Brent Griffin, with his father and uncles, are also owners of Quoddy Bay Lobster, which employs 14 people and relies on the lobsters Brent catches to stay in business.

Faced with an urgent need for a new boat and a tight window before the 2015 lobster season began, Brent and Sara immediately began working with Ruth Cash-Smith, a Certified Business Advisor for CEI.

“Ruth was incredibly helpful right out of the gate in helping us identify possibly sources of funding for our new boat. In a very short time frame, Ruth turned up several opportunities for us that made it possible to get Triple Trouble built before the start of the 2015 season.”

— Sara Griffin

Cash-Smith helped the Griffins leverage a $150,000 bank loan along with a $90,000 TIF (tax increment financing) loan and a $15,000 TIF grant – all within a 28-day window. The new boat launched five months later in May, and the captain and crew agree the vessel is bigger, more stable, and safer. Also the Triple Trouble was especially designed to Brent’s specifications so he can work his boat far more efficiently. “So far, so good,” he reports, although, like most Maine fishermen, he wishes the catch had been heavier this year.



Sweeties Dog-O-Rama

World-Class Dog Grooming Boutique in Small-Town Maine

Next door to Sweeties Downeast candy shop in Eastport is owner Lisa Stephen’s newest enterprise: Sweeties Dog-O-Rama, a dog-grooming boutique, decorated with a curious collection of canine-inspired fine art. The bright gallery-meets-grooming shop is proof that downtown Eastport is not geared just for tourists. This year-round business is already booked out for over a month.

Already a savvy business owner, Lisa has benefited from CEI assistance in her new venture, which involved completing a lengthy dog grooming certification in nearby Canada and then renovating and outfitting her state-of-the-art dog grooming spa.

“I love to take the time to make each dog feel comfortable and pampered, then go back home looking terrific.”  -Lisa Stephen, owner

Lisa also provides a place to park your pet for an hour or two while you go on a whale watch or visit a restaurant.


Eastport Family Pharmacy

Serving Downeast Maine

The people of the Igbo tribe of Nigeria are known as the entrepreneurs of Africa. It’s no surprise that Ben Okafor, owner of Eastport Family Pharmacy, hails from this tribe.

Liz Rogers (CEI), Ben Okafor, Ruth Cash-Smith (CEI)

After working for large pharmaceutical companies during his early career in London and in the United States, he decided that in order to provide the care that rural communities need, he would open his own independent pharmacy. Working with CEI business advisor Ruth Cash-Smith, identified capital to provide up-front payment for prescription drugs to grow the business. Next Ben obtained financing for ramping up as well as purchasing and renovating a larger building for the pharmacy.



Ben and staff at Eastport Family Pharmacy

Ben knows every patient who walks through his door and provides free delivery as far as an hour away including services to the reservation and nursing homes. Eastport Family Pharmacy is a valuable resource to the close-knit Downeast community. “They trust us. When we deliver, we will even let their dogs out or run an errand,” Ben said with a laugh.

Ruth has worked with Ben to purchase and renovate second family pharmacy in Machias, slated to open within a few months.

Spring 2018 renovations at the future Machias Family Pharmacy

Learn more about Ben in this inspiring video.

The Ecology School

Moving Location, Maintaining Mission

Welcoming and Keeping Young Professionals in Maine

TES Educators perform a song for students.

People know The Ecology School (TES) as an outdoor education center that serves young students from all over New England. A story less-told, however, is the impact that this educational experience has on the seasonal staff who come to Maine from all around the country.

Every year TES employs around 30 seasonal educators who are typically between the ages of 22 and 30. Many of these enthusiastic, well-educated, and passionate professionals experience living and working in Maine for the first time, and they develop a deep-seeded connection to the state. Many come back to TES to work for additional terms, while others seek opportunities to stay in Maine and make a difference through their work.

“This is the profile of the target demographic our state’s government, marketing, and economic development agencies are hoping to attract to Maine. We aren’t hoping to do it, we are doing it, year after year,” said Caitlin Brooke, Community Relations Coordinator, of The Ecology School.

Gardens managed by students at TES

For example, Katrina Venhuizen grew up in Austin, Texas and went to college in Madison, Wisconsin. Her career began in environmental education, finding seasonal jobs in diverse parts of the country. When one of her seasonal jobs ended, she was immediately in search of her next adventure. She landed an education position at TES, moved to Saco in frigid February, and got her first taste of life in Maine. “I’d only been to Maine once in 2000 for a stopover in Bangor, but the pictures of it were stunning,” Venhuizen said.  During her free time on the weekends, she explored the area. Katrina found herself in Portland and instantly felt like she was home: the people were friendly, the food was incredible, and the ocean breeze was great. When her spring season at TES ended, she chose to stay in Portland. “It had everything I wanted in a place: beauty, four seasons, rocky shore, sandy shore, the big mammals that I loved, the birds that I loved, great food, the ocean and mountains. I fell in love,” she said. Now, years later, she remains in Maine, having taught at Maine Audubon, the Portland Water District, and currently as the environmental educator at ecomaine.

“Working at TES was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve had. Every teaching style was represented. Students had the freedom to learn in a new and more beautiful way than ever before,” said Venhuizen. “Waking up to the crashing waves and teaching in the salt marsh were two of my all-time favorite things!”

Oceanfront at TES’s Ferry Beach location

A Place to Call Home

Since its origin, TES has operated seasonally at the Ferry Beach Park Association in Saco. To amplify the mission and vision of the school, obtaining its own permanent location where educational programs, space, and seasonality could expand was critical.

Gray Harris (CEI) and Drew Dumsch at TES’s new location River Bend Farm.

Drew Dumsch, CEO and Founder of The Ecology School, identified River Bend Farm as an ideal campus for the expansion and relocation of the school. The 105 acre property, nestled on the Saco River just 20 minutes from the current site, quickly became the dream location of TES. Its rolling topography unfurls an environment rich with ecosystems including fresh water ponds, meadows, fields, substantial riverfront and an apple orchard – an environment where students and staff could explore, farm, educate, and grow.

Farmhouse at River Bend Farm

The property seemed like the perfect location for a new campus, but the school could not wait for a bank to approve their major expansion. As time was running out, CEI stepped in with an understanding of complex financing needs and farm properties. By providing a bridge loan, and connections to a bank and USDA Rural Development for long-term financing, CEI enabled the project to move forward.

The purchase the River Bend Farm property was a first step in the development of the new campus, and a step forward in walking out its mission to foster stewardship for the Earth by reimagining education through the science of ecology and the practice of sustainability. “The Ecology School has an exceptionally key role in providing environmental educational services to public and private schools, by offering a valuable and affordable education they likely wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.” said Cole Palmer, CEI loan officer.

CEO and Founder Drew Dumsch

“Partnering with CEI on buying River Bend Farm has been one of the highlights of the project for me,” said CEO, Drew Dumsch. “Whether working with Cole Palmer and John Egan on the financing for the property or sitting down and discussing food systems with Gray Harris, I’m so impressed by how supportive and visionary CEI has been. For The Ecology School to now be a part of a wider network of CEI-funded rural development projects throughout Maine is an honor and an inspiration.”

Programming at the farm will include permaculture farming, agro-ecology, and sustainable living practices in their Living Building ( campus, a designation given to the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment, going above and beyond LEED certification.

Site plans for TES’s new River Bend Farm location

About The Ecology School

Since 1998, The Ecology School has brought innovative ecology education programs to more than 175,000 children and adults throughout New England and nationwide. In everything they do – leading overnight and day programs on their coastal campus, teaching outreach programs at schools, running camps and publishing curriculum and field guides – they accentuate the wonder of nature so that students can better understand and care for the environment.

Greater Portland Health

Making Healthcare Available to Everyone

Staff at Greater Portland Health, Park Avenue

Walking into a Greater Portland Health (GPH) center means stepping into one of the most diverse waiting rooms in the state.  GPH is a federally qualified health center (FQHC) that is committed to providing high-quality healthcare to everyone in the community regardless of ability to pay.  The health center staff serves patients with commercial, Medicare, and Medicaid insurance.  GPH provides a sliding fee scale program for those without insurance. In any of the nine locations around the Greater Portland area, multiple languages are spoken; individuals receive financial counseling, peer support, and case management; and a full suite of healthcare services that include medical, behavioral health and oral healthcare.

GPH serves over 10,000 patients; 50% are uninsured and may have otherwise not had access to quality healthcare services. GPH staff works collaboratively with many other nonprofits in the community to provide services to anyone in need. GPH services are offered to anyone who walks in the door.

“There is great need in our community, and it is our responsibility to make it work.”

— Ann Tucker, CEO of GPH

The staff of 96 professionals speaks 12 different languages.  GPH is committed to creating quality jobs and offers full benefits, vacation time, training, and fair wages, with a strong focus on promoting from within and creating opportunities for professional development. With a collaborative environment committed to empowering its employees to make decisions, GPH couldn’t exist without a staff that believes in, and supports, the mission: to provide high quality patient-centered healthcare that is accessible, affordable, and culturally sensitive.

Nanouchka Muhimpundu & Ann Tucker

Many New Mainers volunteer at GPH while awaiting their work permits. This has led, in multiple instances, to employment for these individuals as Patient Services Representatives. Nanouchka Muhimpundu, for example, moved to Portland from her home country of Burundi in 2013. Having a background in business management and a BA in International Business Administration, she immediately began volunteering in the enrollment and outreach department at GPH. When she received her work permit, she was hired as a Patient Services Representative, and later she was promoted to a Financial Assistance Counselor position. Her broad experience within the healthcare center primed her for a second promotion to Office Manager at the Park Avenue location. “I work here to help patients,” she said. “It reminds me of my own experience when I first arrived in Portland.”

In 2013, GPH began operating as a 501c3 after four years of support from the City of Portland.

“CEI lent us our first loan, which allowed us to get through that first year on our own. We were a huge risk, barely able to make payroll at the time. As a standalone 501c3, we wouldn’t be here without CEI.”

— Ann Tucker, CEO of GPH

The second loan from CEI provided necessary capital to bring IT infrastructure in-house to reduce hosting expenses and be able to provide more healthcare services to the uninsured.

Greater Portland Health stands out as an organization that is promoting shared prosperity in its community by promoting health care access for everyone.

Seedlings to Sunflowers

Childcare Center that Meets Community Needs

Seedlings to Sunflowers, a start-up nonprofit childcare center in Gorham, broke ground on its new facility on Friday, November 10, 2017. Friends Marissa Ritz and Meghann Carrasco were both consumers of the childcare industry. After navigating waitlists, high teacher turnover, less than ideal curriculums and the lack of collaboration between centers and parents, they both were left wanting more for their children. Their passion for educating children was the seed to envisioning the childcare center. “Our goal is to be more than a daycare. For that reason we have labeled ourselves as a childcare and family center,” said Ritz. “As a licensed clinical social worker, I have spent the last decade seeing the impact of the disconnection of families and community/education centers. Our goal is to bridge this gap and to focus on building connections in our community.” Both bring to the startup professional experience and commitment to support the emotional, social and developmental needs of the children, strengthen the relationship between teachers and caregivers, and create a space where children can become active members of their communities.

Meghann Carrasco and Marissa Ritz, co-owners of Seedlings to Sunflowers, at groundbreaking ceremony in November 2017.

The woman-owned and operated non-profit childcare center will offer voucher slots to low-income families and a sliding scale pricing structure. The organization will offer childcare and education for children aged 6 weeks to 5 years, as well as after school programs for children aged 5 to 10 years. Programming will include a STEAM-based curriculum and a greenhouse garden-to-table educational program. An adjacent 16 by 20 foot greenhouse will allow year-round outside time.

“Beyond providing a much-needed service to families, we are excited to help grow the workforce in our area. A goal of the school is to help take a demographic of professionals who are often underpaid and living without benefits and work, and provide the compensation they deserve. Additionally, one of our focus points is to teach community stewardship. We are looking forward to spearheading causes in the Greater Portland area that are consistent with our mission,” said Ritz.

Due to the startup nature of the business, Seedlings to Sunflowers was challenged to find the significant capital needed for the construction of the new 5,300 square foot childcare center. CEI stepped forward with $1.495 million in loan financing from the USDA Community Facilities program and TD Bank. The financing will help with land acquisition, construction, and development of the facility. CEI is also providing workforce assistance to help Seedlings to Sunflowers reach its goal of creating quality jobs and hiring 50 percent of its employees from low to moderate income backgrounds.

“CEI supported us in taking our dream and making it a reality,” said Ritz. “Throughout the process they have helped to guide us and have encouraged us to get clear about our goals. We could not have done this without the financial support, but really, their mentoring has been priceless.”

“Seedlings to Sunflowers is just the kind of business CEI exists to support,” said Daniel Wallace, CEI Loan and Investment Officer, “What stands out is the incredible passion, drive, and capacity of its two co-founders, Marissa and Meghann, to respond to the need for daycare for all members of their community. In addition, Seedlings is committed to providing compelling wrap around programming, including a STEAM-based curriculum and on-site greenhouse, while simultaneously creating quality jobs for their employees.”

The facility opened in June 2018.