Fires flickered and candles glowed in the darkness at Waterfall Arts' inaugural Fireside Chats event in Belfast on Dec. 21, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Battaglia / Waterfall Arts

Stories told around a crackling campfire is something that most people associate with summer camp or wilderness trips, but this winter, it’s happening right on High Street in Belfast, thanks to a new program offered by Waterfall Arts.

The monthly Fireside Chats are intended to bring people together in a safe way, despite the ongoing pandemic. And while it might be a little surprising to see campfires, hay bales and a robust gathering of bundled-up people avidly listening to each other’s tales just outside the front door of the 1930s-era former school building, the program has already fostered a new sense of community and revival of oral traditions.  

About 20 people braved chilly temperatures for the first event in December, and organizers hope to have a similarly enthusiastic crowd come out for the next one, set for Jan. 20.  

The idea came from Amy Tingle, the new program director at the organization.

“There’s a quote — ‘The shortest distance between two people is a story,’” she said. “I thought, let’s tell stories. Let’s sit around the fire and tell stories.”

The pandemic has been a strain on Waterfall Arts, as it has been on many community organizations where people come together. Holding events remotely by Zoom and other platforms can help, but it’s not the same as having people in the same space. For a long time, as the arts center was working to figure out its COVID-19 policy, there weren’t a lot of people coming into the building.

But having an event outside felt like a way to be safe and connected. In December, Waterfall Arts invited Stephanie Holman, a professional storyteller and the children’s librarian at the Belfast Free Library, to kick things off. The stories that night had a loose theme of libraries, books, literary moments and meeting a favorite author.

About 20 people came to listen to stories, tell stories — and make s’mores — at Waterfall Arts’ inaugural Fireside Chats event last month. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Battaglia / Waterfall Arts

This month, the featured nonprofit organization is Coastal Mountains Land Trust, and stories will have a theme of land and trail experiences.

“Hopefully we will get more folks to revel in storytelling,” Chris Battaglia, the marketing manager for Waterfall Arts, said. “We were trying to think about ways to get people to break out of their comfort zone. The oral tradition, it feels like anyone can do it.”

Striving for that kind of accessibility is important to Waterfall Arts’ model and mission. It’s a big reason why the organization is in the midst of a $2.6 million capital campaign called “Waterfall Rising.” The fundraising campaign has the goal of modernizing the 86-year-old building by buttoning up its exterior, reducing its energy use and making it accessible to more people thanks to a new three-story elevator and facilities compliant with the American with Disabilities Act.

So far, the group has raised more than 60 percent of its goal, including a recent $100,000 grant earmarked to remove lead paint from around the building’s 74 windows and replace the old windows with energy-efficient, contemporary ones. The organization already has fixed the formerly pothole-ridden parking lot. A new entryway and elevator are next.

“We’re very much looking forward to saying we are completely accessible,” Tingle said. “I think that’s really the driving force behind it. Of course, it’s going to be really nice to have a warmer building and windows that work and aren’t drafty.”

The fundraising campaign has been going well, which she believes is because of the strong presence that Waterfall Arts has in Belfast and Waldo County, and the success of events such as the Fireside Chats.

“People know that’s what Waterfall is — the crazier the idea, the better,” she said. “It’s funny to me, because our building is such a box. The old elementary school architecture is a box. But what happens in here is very much outside the box.”

For example, the arts group recently opened a glassblowing studio that runs on recycled doughnut fryer oil, and has a popular annual program called “Cardboard Boxes Are Really Fun,” in which community members create something special with packing tape and a mountain of cardboard boxes. That event, affectionately called “CBARF,” did not happen last year because of the pandemic. But it’s back this year, held on Jan. 29 at the Waldo County YMCA.

“Someone recently told us, ‘It seems like Waterfall is having a lot of fun right now,’” he said. “There’s totally good juju going on.”

The next Fireside Chats event will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20 just outside Waterfall Arts at 256 High St.