In 2002, Lesley MacVane was a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland. Her studies led her to LearningWorks – then called Portland West – in search of a subject for her photography project. Lesley connected with our Youth Building Alternatives (YBA) program and met a student named James Benner. Lesley’s beautiful photos captured James in an unflinching portrait of a young person in transition. YBA serves young people who are disconnected from the traditional pathways that formal schooling and entry into the workforce provide. In a way, each student’s journey through our program is a coming of age tale, though their stories aren’t like the ones you normally hear. Lesley’s photos captured James’ hands, with chipped black nail polish, holding a cigarette, captioned: “Breakfast most days consists of a cigarette.” In another photo, he is at home, looking straight at the camera from a cluttered bedroom. Her images showed him lost in thought on a local bus and listening studiously in our classroom. Lesley’s documentary project captured not only the upheaval this teen was experiencing in his life, but also the one consistent source of structure, learning, and safety he had at YBA.
Lesley was moved by this experience so much that she joined our board of directors and served on it for fourteen years. In that time, she oversaw a name change and re-branding, changes in leadership, and more, helping shepherd the organization through ups and downs. As she steps down from her post in 2018, her consistent support as a board member, development committee member, and continuing documentarian of LearningWorks in her role at the Portland Media Center (formerly known as CTN) have been a crucial part of making LearningWorks what it is today. By seeing our students as they truly are and sharing their stories with the world, Lesley helped amplify our mission and make it visible in the community. It’s not easy to share compelling information about young people struggling in the traditional education system, but Lesley made it possible. She brought in countless friends, family, and supporters to see what she saw – hope, safety, support, and possibility – and created a community of donors, volunteers, and staff at LearningWorks that we will benefit from indefinitely. Thank you, Lesley, for all you have done to make LearningWorks what it is today.