Bates students are developing a strong partnership with AK Health and Social Services (AKHSS), an immigrant-led organization in Lewiston. According to the founder of AKHSS, these students have become a key part of the nonprofit’s growing success.
AKHSS is a two-year-old Lewiston-based nonprofit that connects recent immigrants and refugees with social services such as COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, counseling services, emotional support, need assessments and workforce development.
The nonprofit was founded by Abdikhadar Shire in June 2020. Shire was born in Somalia, grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya and attended university in Canada. He moved to Maine with his family in 2019 to earn his second bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he first came up with the idea for AKHSS.
“I found that one of the immediate needs for the immigrant population in Lewiston was employment,” Shire said. “I realized that there was a need for an immigrant-led organization headed by somebody who went through the pain of looking for a job, the difficulties … somebody who knew English.”
Candace Johnson ‘22, an employee at AKHSS, spoke of Shire’s unique approach to community issues in Lewiston.
“He’s trying to do well for his community, but he also sees himself in the community. He’s trying to persevere and make sure his community is safe, helped and up-to-date,” she said.
AKHSS became the first immigrant-led workforce development program in the area catered specifically to the immigrant community. As a nonprofit organization, they needed volunteers.
“I saw Bates as a potential, as an institution that could actually provide student volunteers and student interns,” Shire said. “We have developed a really strong relationship and it’s been a huge part of our success.”
In addition to accepting Bates students as volunteers, AKHSS now hires students as part of the Bates work-study program.
Sophie Alexis ‘25 is one of several Bates student volunteers and employees at AKHSS. She started volunteering this September and became an employee in the winter.
“Pragmatically, I’ve learned a lot of skills and a lot of the processes of government, because my job involves a lot of interaction with state officials and figuring out the nonprofit ecosystem. It’s a whole new world,” Alexis said.
AKHSS started offering public health support during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to providing testing and accessible information about the virus, AKHSS is trying to address health disparities that existed before the pandemic.
“COVID-19 just showed us that there’s this need for education and outreach about health outcomes for our community,” said Shire.
Johnson, who began volunteering in the fall of 2021, focuses on outreach and public health for AKHSS.
“I started with creating educational materials around vaccines, pregnancy and breast cancer. My work gets translated, because it’s a very multilingual community, and then distributed,” Johnson said.
Johnson hopes to pursue healthcare policy, public health policy or education policy after graduating from Bates.
“I’m really excited to use the experiences I have from AKHSS. You learn so much from nonprofit and so much from each other, because you have to be there for each other,” she said.
Currently, there are at least five Bates students volunteering at AKHSS and three working as employees at the organization. The partnership between AKHSS and Bates is continuing to grow.
According to Shire, the after school program depends fully on Bates student volunteers. Shire is also currently working with four Bates students to develop programs and educational materials for the communities AKHSS serves.
Bates students benefit from the partnership as well.
“We work really well together. I’ve been able to connect with a group of people in a small amount of time. It’s like a family,” Johnson said.
Alexis said, “I really feel like this job has helped me a lot. The team is amazing and very understanding, and they give me a lot of room for growth.”
Both Alexis and Johnson emphasized the importance of volunteering in Lewiston.
“Making that connection at the Harward Center was probably the single best decision I made in my first semester,” Alexis said. “If you want to get involved, get involved. If you want to work on certain issues, go for it.”
“I hope more people volunteer, because then our Bates partnerships with local organizations are going to grow and ultimately contribute to how Lewiston feels about Bates. We’re trying to make this barrier go away,” Johnson said.