CASTINE – It might not look like much now, but soon the old windmill and reservoir site on State Street will host a state-of-the-art early learning center and afterschool program for young children.
The center, which will host up to 60 children once completed, will help address an urgent need for professional childcare on the Blue Hill peninsula.
According to 2015 U.S. Census estimates, there were 164 children under the age of five living in Castine, Penobscot and Orland.
However, according to the website childcarecenter.us, there are hardly any licensed childcare facilities for those children to stay in during the day, which makes it difficult for parents in those towns to work.
“Businesses in town hear from people ‘I can’t work these hours because my babysitter’s sick,’” said WG Sayre, a Castine resident who, along with his wife Nancy, is leading the effort to build the early learning center.
“There was a fellow running a restaurant in town and he said he’s not just scheduling around people, but around their children,” Sayre said.
The group the Sayres represent, and the building project they hope to complete, is called Community Childhood Learning Place (CCLP).
Before CCLP was officially formed in 2014, the town had a childcare program that was hosted in a local church basement.
The program was informally known as Otter House, but it only had room for 11 kids.
“You can’t operate financially on only that number of children,” said Diana Bernard, who was involved with Otter House and now volunteers with CCLP. “We were constantly in debt.”
Otter House eventually closed down, and in 2016, the town of Castine leased the old windmill site to CCLP.
Since then, the non-profit has been hard at work developing an architectural plan, raising money and doing initial construction work on the site.
Sayre said that the reservoir’s 122-year-old foundation is more than strong enough to hold a building full of youngsters.
“Concrete over time gets harder and harder,” said the retired chemistry professor. “This is over 100 years old. It’s as strong as granite now.”
Shaped like a giant circle, the 4,000-square-foot main floor of the future building will be divided into pie slice-shaped classrooms for toddlers, three- and four-year-olds, and the after-school program for children up to 12 years old.
Each classroom will have plenty of windows to allow in natural light, and an exit door for safety in case of an emergency.
In the center of the main floor, at the hub of all the classrooms, will be an arts center with a cupola on top.
“The light will come in from the cupola and spill into the room, so aesthetically that will be nice,” Sayre said.
The natural light should help children see clearly as they refine their motor skills through drawing and painting.
“When they’re scribbling and drawing little stick figures, that’s actually getting them ready to learn how to write,” Sayre said.
CCLP volunteers said that the building is designed to give children space to move around and express themselves artistically.
They pointed to studies that showed how those activities have a significant impact on a child’s mental and physical development, which can last into adulthood.
One study that ran in the March 2014 issue of the magazine Science found that exposure to high-quality early childhood programs led to a significantly lower prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in adults in their mid-thirties.
“We’re going to provide a quality, exciting environment,” said Nancy Sayre. “That’s what research shows makes the difference in children’s lives, not sitting in front of a TV.”
Robust childcare programs can have an impact on society as well, because they can allow single parents to go to work easier.
“If they can’t work, their sense of self-worth drops,” Sayre said, about parents. “Everything drops.”
CCLP referred to a study that was published online by the magazine Nature in December 2016, which found that the 22 percent of adults in a study who grew up in distressed conditions at home accounted for 57 percent of the study’s hospital nights, 66 percent of welfare benefits, 78 percent of prescription fills and 81 percent of criminal convictions.
“It’s all part of a great big cycle, and it’s not easy,” said Bernard. “It takes everyone working together, but this, the childcare, is an integral part.”
The volunteers at CCLP hope to help stop that cycle by providing childcare for an affordable price.
A former elementary school teacher and college professor, Nancy Sayre said that once the center is built, families can apply for Maine’s Child Care Subsidy Program.
“Somebody called this ‘Nancy’s Harvard for early childhood,’” she said. “It can be Harvard for early childhood, but it’s on a scholarship.”
CCLP is also trying to save money on construction by re-using most of the old reservoir’s 48-year-old wooden roof in the childcare center’s walls.
They also recruited Maine Maritime Academy’s service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega to help build the center. The architects who designed the building, Todd+Mohr Design, did so pro bono.
Volunteer labor should help bring down the total cost of the building to under $360,000, W.G. Sayre said.
As of now, the group has raised slightly under $170,000. They hope to complete the building’s roof by winter so that interior construction can begin.
Bernard hopes a roof will also help encourage potential donors to contribute to the project, which CCLP hopes to have completed in 2018.
“If you get the roof up you can actually hold an event inside and say to the people ‘this is what it’s going to be, but we need money for this,’” she said.
Donors can contribute to the project online at communitychildhoodlearningplace.org, by calling 207-702-4303 or by making a check out to Community Childhood Learning Place and sending it to PO Box 344 Castine, ME 04421.
“Our architects said learning care facilities are part of a town’s infrastructure,” W.G. Sayre said. “You have to have sewer, water, roads, fire, learning and care. You have to have it in modern society.”