Embracing differences & making a difference

Naima Abdirhmon envisioned a community childcare center that would embrace the cultural diversity of Portland and each child’s unique identity and enthusiasm for learning.

A Somali refugee who immigrated to Maine with her family in 1996, Abdirhmon attended Portland public schools and earned a doctorate of pharmacy from University of New England, where she was involved in leading student groups and volunteered at a local daycare. The idea for creating a children’s learning center grew from her interests in volunteering and community service, as well as from her observations of a daycare her cousin attended. “Childcare, in an unexpected way, offered me an opportunity to combine my various interests in family, education and cultures into one endeavor,” Abdirhmon says.

In 2015, she launched ARWO Learning Center in Portland. ARWO means “prosperous” in Somali, a name that aligns with the center’s mission to “nurture capable, healthy and happy children.” ARWO is unique in its mission to offer “culturally inclusive care” in an environment that supports each child’s culture and experiences. “I believe strongly in not merely co-existing but co-thriving,” Abdirhmon says. “Culturally inclusive simply means we make an extra effort to embrace our differences. What that looks like is talking to children about why a certain student doesn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, or why one doesn’t eat meat or what they did during the weekend.” ARWO celebrates all religious holidays and each classroom has a theme and curriculum that corresponds with a different global continent.

ARWO is located on Portland’s Forest Avenue and offers extended hours of operation (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.), charges lower tuition rates than other area centers, follows NAYCE regulated teacher-child ratios and provides a healthy and balanced food program included in tuition. As a result, ARWO’s families are representative of Portland’s diverse socioeconomic, religious, racial, ethnic and family makeup demographics.

Another draw for families has been ARWO’s non-traditional building, which offers oversized classrooms and abundant natural light. There was no green space on the premises when ARWO took over the lease, so they decided to get creative and construct a playground out of a parking area in front of the building. An ARWO parent and owner of Black Birch Landscaping Company stepped in to help. “They really did an incredible job with the space. The transformation was remarkable. The kids love the space and enjoy it everyday, weather permitting.”

To launch the business, Abdirhmon worked closely with CEI’s StartSmart business development program for immigrants and refugees, a program she says, “helped me immensely, from writing my business plan, securing financial capital, to recruiting and developing staff.” ARWO also partnered with Goodwill Workforce Solutions and the Portland Jobs Alliance to identify, train and hire staff members, including many new Mainers. Abdirhmon sees Maine and Portland as being “very pro small business right now—there is a lot of support to get our local economy to thrive.”

The hardest challenge in launching ARWO was getting families to entrust their children’s care in a brand-new center. “Enrollment was slow at first, and we tried several methods of advertising from hanging flyers at local cafes, hosting open houses, Facebook and radio ads.” Despite these marketing efforts, ARWO’S biggest recruitment strategy came through word-of-mouth recommendations “by the few brave and farsighted families we had already. From then on, we focused less on advertising and more on providing quality care and meeting the needs of our families.” Since opening, ARWO’s enrollment has grown to 70 children and 18 employees.

“I believe that everyone needs to push towards positive progress in his or own way,” Abdirhmon says of being a woman business owner in Maine. “There was a time where I would passively watch and learn what was happening in the world and feel completely helpless. I’m choosing to focus on developing and infusing as much good into the world as possible. The fact that there is more access, opportunities and resources for women than ever before gives me a sense of urgency and vigor.”

She’s also relied on advice and support from her mother (also a business owner), her teachers and role models from programs like PROP, a peer leader program she says helped her “learn what it meant to be a contributing member of American society. I was lucky to have those programs and I want to give back by serving as a role model for young children.”

Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.

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