Every year the Bridges to Peace Global march crosses a bridge to bring attention to a program that brings youth around the world together for peace, tolerance and understanding.
AUGUSTA | The 100 or so golden-shirted teens striding across Memorial Bridge Sunday morning proclaimed their support of Seeds of Peace, an organization aiming to inspire leadership and cross-cultural understanding among youngsters.
It was the second year a group marched across a bridge in the state for that cause. Last year, teens crossed a small wooden bridge in Otisfield, at a Seeds of Peace camp. Next year, it’s a bridge in Bangor.
The Bridges to Peace Global march Saturday was designed to “raise funds to support Maine’s Seeds of Peace nonprofit and its network of young peacemakers in conflict regions,” according to a press release from the organization. Bridge marches are set later this month in New York City and London, among other cities.
“We’re all walking together,” said Heather Lindkvist of Lewiston, who serves on the Maine Seeds of Peace Steering Committee.
Seeds of Peace initially brought young Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Americans to Maine for three weeks in 1993 to improve understanding and communication and to promote peace, and more than 5,000 teens have been to the camp over the past 21 years, according to the organization.
The alumni are known as seeds, and the organization’s website, www.seedsofpeace.org, follows their accomplishments.
And Seeds of Peace has expanded to offer similar programs through Maine high schools.
Almost all the high school walkers Sunday had been to the camp, and the parking lot of the Cony flatiron building, once part of Cony High School, was filled with the sound of squeals and the sight of multiple hugs as teens from around Maine recognized each other and staff members from various camp functions.
Local participants came by private vehicle, and other teens arrived via school buses from Portland and Lewiston. After the early morning parade along the sidewalk of Memorial Bridge, they were headed for a day-long seminar in Hallowell.
Most arrived wearing their dark green Seeds of Peace T-shirts and were given the golden Bridges to Peace T-shirts in the parking lot.
Sarah Kaplan and Aiden Campbell, both from Augusta, attended separate sessions of Seeds and said that a bullying problem at Cony High School stopped as more students graduated from the program.
“I just think that Seeds is a great organization,” Cambpell said.
“Seeds made a big difference,” Kaplan said.
Their camp sessions included high school students from across Maine and from Syracuse, N.Y., and counselors from other nations.
“It was really an eye-opener,” Kaplan said. “I pay more attention to what’s happening in the Middle East.”
About the current situation involving the use of chemical warfare in Syria, Campbell said, “I think we shouldn’t stick our nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Ty Murphy from Lewiston High School arrived with a number of others by bus and greeted his fellow campers from this summer.
“It’s nice to see everyone again,” he said. “To support any cause that Seeds supports is really important.”
He said his camp experience taught him “to accept other people and to throw away stereotypes.”
Tim Wilson, director of the Maine Seeds of Peace program, who has been with the organization since 1993, said the program involves 13 high schools and is aiming to expand again next year.
Gov. Paul LePage donned a golden T-shirt as well, and made brief remarks from the steps of the building as the teens prepared to begin their march, talking about his connections with the organization over the past 2 1/2 years.
He told them the leadership skills they were learning would be valuable in everything they do.
“One or two of you may be standing here for the next generation,” he said, telling them to absorb the lessons they learn and grow in self-esteem. “You lead the pack,” he told them.
LePage was introduced to the crowd by Ben Leet from Cony High School, who had attended the second session of Seeds of Peace camp in 2012.
LePage also told them that one of the students he was speaking with in the parking lot asked him who he was.
“I like that because there is hope,” LePage said with a smile. “If you read newspapers, you wouldn’t vote for me.”
On its IRS filings, Seeds of Peace, Inc., describes itself as “committed to inspiring and equipping young leaders from regions of conflict.”
It had revenue of $5.5 million and expenses of almost $4.7 million in the 2011 according to tax filings available through guidestar.org.
While the Bridges to Peace effort, which started in 2011, has brought in $250,000 so far, the largest fundraiser for Seeds of Peace Inc., appears to be an annual dinner, which raised $1.6 million in 2011.
The Augusta walk raised $2,075 by Sunday.