June 20, 2018
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From cannery to children’s enrichment center: Liberty learning center offers promise of new life in old building

Water Street Learning Center | BDN
Water Street Learning Center | BDN
The volunteer workers of the planned Water Street Learning Center worked last month on shingling the space in the old corn cannery. By fall, organizers expect the home school enrichment program to be open for business in downtown Liberty.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

LIBERTY, Maine — For families that choose to homeschool their children, the days can be busy, long and sometimes difficult and isolated.

That’s why a group of Waldo County families has been spending its free moments over the last year hauling scrap metal out of an old corn canning factory in Liberty. They are cleaning up part of the factory and rebuilding it to make it a kid-friendly spot for homeschool enrichment programming, and they also have been busy raising money for the project — about $22,000 so far. If all goes according to plan, the Water Street Learning Center will be open for business this fall, and parents like Alessandra Martinelli of Northport are thrilled.

Martinelli has three children, each at a different stage of learning. Although she is committed to homeschooling, she says it would be great for her kids to be able to study and socialize with other children two or three days a week in an environment that’s much less formal than traditional schools. Parents will collaborate on aspects like snack time, but will also have more time to be with younger children or to do other tasks while children are working with the enrichment center’s teachers.

“It’s nice for your kids to be with another adult who is intentionally spending time with them,” she said this week while watching her children run around the Belfast City Park playground. “The core group of people, we’re all volunteering our time. It feels like you’re doing work for nothing — but when the drywall is up, and the kids are there, they’ll know we did this for them.”

Ultimately, the Water Street Learning Center, carved out of about a quarter of the space in the cannery, will become home to diverse activities in Liberty, including art classes, children’s cooking classes, music lessons, movie nights and more, Martinelli said. It will be open for everybody, but the dedicated home-school enrichment program will have three age groups: ages 3 to 5, 6 to 9 and 10 to 12. It’s not going to be a school, so does not require state accreditation, but will need to meet state code for water and septic systems, both of which are in the works, she said.

It is taking root in the 1920s-era building that artist and metalworker David McLaughlin bought in the early 1970s, transforming it then into a salvage yard and workshop. The metalworker died in 2010, leaving a hole in the community.

“He regularly and steadily expressed a deep love of poetry, rust … technologies ancient and modern, hard work, ingenuity, tool placement and other mindful work practices,” Alan Crichton of the non-profit Waterfall Arts organization wrote about McLaughlin in Liberty’s 2010 annual report. “David was a phenomenon.”

McLaughlin left the cannery to three beneficiaries: the town of Liberty, Waterfall Arts, and architect Svea Tullberg, and representatives of the three new owners decided they would be happy to rent space to the Water Street Learning Center.

“It’ll be great to have people occupying the building and bringing life to it,” Lorna Crichton of Waterfall Arts said Thursday. The building has been largely empty since McLaughlin died.

Martinelli said that they want the building to be lively. The idea to create a learning center came up a couple of years ago, as homeschooling parents chatted while their children played together.

“How can we homeschool our kids, but still have the social component of school [we wondered]?” she asked. “We had the energy. We had the kids. We had the educators. We just didn’t have the space.”

That changed when the cannery building became available. Now, plans are progressing along with the space, which features two classrooms and a child-sized kitchen with low counters and a low sink. Organizers want to keep the learning center affordable, with a sliding scale of fees between $18 and $25 per day per child.

Right now, there are eight families actively helping with the renovation, but Martinelli said that they are looking for more people to bring their children to the center. They’ve hired two teachers and an assistant teacher so far, and people who are part of the project say that it’s going to be important to the community’s children, and to other folks, too.

“When I was young, I had the unique and distinct experience of being raised by an entire community,” Casey Martin Ard, who also is involved in the project and hails from the Liberty area, wrote in an email to the BDN. “Giving a people the opportunity to gather together and learn from one another adds strength and sustainability to the foundation of our rural community and gives purpose and support to future generations.”

The New Orleans-based band Tuba Skinny will perform from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 164 Kingdom Road in Montville to raise funds for the Water Street Learning Center. Suggested donations are $10 per person or $25 per family. For more information, call 589-4093.


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