First student organized TEDx talks come to Maine

BIDDEFORD – For nearly a year, Biddeford High School senior Elyse Oliver has dreamed of bringing an event to her school that would both motivate and inspire her fellow students.

TEDx Student Leaders

Elyse Oliver and Tom Laverriere – cohosts of the TEDx Youth@Biddeford conference.


On March 29, she and other organizers held the first student run TEDx youth event in the state.

“Elyse came to see me early in the year and asked if we could host an event like the one she went to in the spring,” Principal Britt Wolfe said. “She said that she had met Adam Burke and other people from TED and they licensed independent events to students and schools,” he said. “She wanted to bring that to our school.”

Oliver started working with Dawn Pendergrass, an English teacher, and within weeks they had formed a steering committee to organize and plan for the day. They called their event “TEDx Youth@Biddeford.”

“The ‘x’ indicates it’s an independent event, licensed by TED, but organized by us,” Oliver said.

Students from Thornton Academy, Chevrus, Catherine McAuley attended along with those from Biddeford High School.

Biddeford students who wanted to participate were required to fill out an application indicating why they were interested and submit the completed essay to Pendergrass. About 100 students from Biddeford High School were at the event.

TED talks have been around for nearly 30 years, initially starting in 1984 as a conference where innovative and inspiring ideas centered around technology, entertainment and design were discussed. Over time, the conference name was simply shortened to the acronym, TED.

The event in Biddeford was a combination of live presenters and screenings of standout TED talks from traditional TED events, and each speaker or video was chosen in the hope they would engage students in authentic dialogue within their community.

“The goal is to cause students to realize their own potential and inspire people to go out and make their own ‘waves,’ ” Oliver said.

During the event, nine live speakers who reside in Maine spoke. Many came from different walks of life, but according to Oliver and Pendergrass, each one had an “idea that was worth spreading.”

The first speaker of the day was Anjali Appardurai, an activist and student from The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, who spoke of the importance of standing up for social justice.

The talks continued through the day, and included a former Biddeford High School student and current motivational writer, Jermey Grebin, as well as a Biddeford High School teacher and singer, Samantha Francis.

As each speaker took the stage, it was clear the common thread for the day was “making waves” or making a difference within the community – no matter what road the speakers happen to follow in life.

As Biddeford resident and oyster farmer Abigail Carroll said, “That path may take you to France and back” before you find your passion.

Other speakers at the event included Jennifer Small, the founder of Multisport Coaching; Kyle Poissonier, founder of Elykssor Clothing; Biddeford resident Brian Denger, an activist in the fight for a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy; Biddeford High School graduate Matt Forcier, a filmmaker and journalist; and Kerem Durag, CEO of Biovation.

In the end, Pendergrass, Oliver and all the other members of the steering committee who organized the event were happy with their efforts.

“We hope this momentum continues and we have this again next year,” Pedergrass said.

“The event was expensive to produce and costly to put on, but so many people helped,” she said. “People from Biddeford Public Access came helped with the filming and production, and all of the video from today can be seen on the TEDx website.”

Pendergrass and her committee made a conscious effort to invite students, parents, and leaders from throughout the area and not just Biddeford.

“We wanted our waves to touch a lot of shores,” she said.

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, who is also a state representative, was one of the invited guests and he, too, recognized the importance of the day.

“Those kids who are most successful, who realize their potential, are those who embrace life and embrace themselves and their ideas,” he said.

“By watching and listening today, that’s what I hope you get out of it,” he said. “Embrace yourselves and the world – it’s a great place.”

TEDx Youth Steering Committee

David Arenstam

About David Arenstam

Originally from away, but here to stay - Maine is my home and I love writing stories about the people and places from my end of the state. I am a teacher and writer and my first novel, "Homecoming: A Soldier's Story of Loyalty, Courage, and Redemption" is available now at