ELLSWORTH — Every Monday and Wednesday since 2015, 21-year-old Pauline Garcia has worked at the Down East Family YMCA’s Early Learning Center, where she looks after preschoolers as a teacher’s assistant.
She reads books to the kids, sets up stations where they can play, helps them put their winter clothes on and keeps them focused when the teacher is talking.
Keeping an eye on 15 to 18 small children is an exhausting task for anybody, but Garcia has to work with an extra challenge. She has Down syndrome, which can make it harder for her to stay focused during an eight-hour work day. But Garcia doesn’t let that get in her way.
“When I first arrive at work, all I think of is staying focused on what I have to do,” Garcia said.
When asked what she does when she gets tired after lunch, she said, “There’s no trick to it. I put a smile on my face.”
It’s that kind of attitude that has helped Garcia excel at the YMCA.
“We absolutely love her,” said Jessica Montgomery, the YMCA’s child care director. Montgomery said her staff quickly became enamored of Garcia’s kind nature and positive attitude when she did a four-week work assessment there before becoming a permanent part-time employee.
“She’s just naturally gifted when it comes to connection with young children,” Montgomery said. “She loves to lay with them at quiet rest. She tells them stories, she listens to their story.”
Garcia has a knack for working with kids, but she’s also well trained for the job. While attending Mount Desert Island High School, Garcia took three years of classes in the Hancock County Technical Center’s early childhood education program. She started working at the YMCA a few months after graduating in June 2015.
“We had an interview with her, and she blew us away,” Montgomery said. “You’re hired.”
It’s a big achievement for anybody to find work they enjoy, but Garcia is about to take another big step in her life. This summer, she and five other adults – some with Down syndrome, others with autism or physical disabilities – will move into apartments in a new facility in Bar Harbor.
The project, called Local Solutions, has been underway for several years. The renovation of the former parish house at St. Saviour’s Church is set to be complete this summer.
Each resident will pay rent. Several already have employment. One of them is a published writer whose book of poems and short prose is sold at Sherman’s Bookstore in Bar Harbor. Another is a vocalist and songwriter who has performed with the Barn Arts Collective and Acadia Community Theater. Another resident is an avid marathon runner who organized the annual Walk for Autism in Northeast Harbor. The walk raised $7,000 for the Autism Society of Maine one year.
“We have some very accomplished people,” said Roberta Raymond, a retired MDI High School teacher and board secretary of Local Solutions.
The group received the building as a donation from the church, which could not afford to bring the old building up to code. Local Solutions worked for years with Community Housing of Maine to raise funds to renovate the house, which has a prime location in downtown Bar Harbor.
“It’s right behind Reel Pizza,” Raymond said. “There are eight restaurants in downtown Bar Harbor that they can walk to without crossing the street.”
The central location also helps put Garcia’s mother, Kim, at ease.
“Just knowing that I’ve got the Fire Department, the Police Department, a movie theater and friends next door does relieve some of the apprehension that, as parents, we have about our daughter moving out onto her own,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard over 21 years, going on 22, to keep Pauline safe and away from harm. But we’ve got to let Pauline be Pauline.”
It took a village to get Garcia to this point. When she was born in Tucson, Ariz., her parents immediately started looking for areas with good support systems for kids like their daughter.
The Mount Desert Island school system had a national reputation for success in that area, so the Garcias packed up their Pontiac Grand Am and drove the 3,000 miles to Salisbury Cove.
“We miss family terribly, and it’s a heck of a trip to visit,” Kim said. “But when it comes to Pauline and our life out here, there are no regrets. Best move we ever made.”
Programs such as the Mount Desert Island High School life skills class (now called the Students with Unique Needs program), Downeast Horizons and the Hancock County Technical Center’s early childhood education program provided key mentors for Garcia that helped her learn and grow.
“She’s had so many awesome teachers and ed techs,” Kim said. “Her support network is a big reason she’s been as successful as she is.”
With all that support behind her, Garcia is well-prepared to start living on her own. She and her mom have created a list of recipes on Pinterest to follow, and Garcia knows what to do to set her alarm and get ready in time for work in the morning.
“I’m a little bit nervous and scared, but I’ll get the hang of it,” said Garcia, who added that she’s looking forward to dancing to music while cooking in the kitchen “and not seeing my mom do it.”
Living in Bar Harbor and working at the YMCA could be the first steps toward Garcia’s dream goal: to eventually own and operate her own child care center.
“I have a lot of dreams I want to do,” she said.
Some might find it hard to believe that a person with Down syndrome could achieve such a dream, but those people haven’t met Pauline Garcia.
“She has Down syndrome, but she rocks it,” Montgomery said. “Pauline says that about herself, and I love it. She embraces that part about herself so beautifully and very admirably.”
“Don’t let what anybody says tear you down,” Garcia said. “Be comfortable with you are.”