Alfond Youth Center begins construction on greenhouse complex

Construction began Sept. 2 on an expansion of Waterville’s Alfond Youth Center. The expansion project will be a 50- foot biodome, or greenhouse complex, which will become the flagship of the Center’s Sustainable Gardening Program.

Expected to have its grand opening on October 25, the biodome will be named the Mary Nash Beaubre Greenhouse, after the late mother of chief donors John and Mark Beaubre. Beaubre is the founder of the Maine Celebrity Classic annual golf tournament fundraiser, and chose to direct this year’s funds to the biodome. Beaubre explained that he chose to do so because, “I needed to find a way to memorialize mom’s love for kids and gardening at the Boys & Girls’ Club in which I grew up.”

In addition to volunteering at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club throughout the 1970s and 80s, Mary Nash Beaubre was a central member of the Garden Club and was intimately involved with, among other considerations, the landscaping surrounding the merger of these two clubs.

This project has been three years in the making. Alfond Youth Center Marketing and Communications Director Christa Lavenson told the Echo that Center CEO Ken Walsh had been considering the idea of a greenhouse since 2014. When Beaubre found this idea to be a way to honor his mother’s impact on her communities, they began raising operational funds.

Other donors included Hannaford Supermarkets, and Lowe’s, which contributed a $50,000 grant as part of its Renovation Across the Nation program.

The Alfond Youth Center, which incorporates both Waterville’s Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs and YMCAs, plans to use this new space to host various science and nature-oriented youth enrichment programs.

The completed biodome will include a solar powered ecosphere, hydroponics and aquaponics learning labs, and a cutting-edge greenhouse with fresh, healthy produce available to the Center’s Kid’s Kitchen and Weekend Backpack programs.

Lavenson was excited about the innovative technologies involved with the biodome: “It’s got these great vents up top that are run on beeswax so that when it gets hot, it expands and pushes the piston out, lets air in. When it gets cold, it contracts and closes, all automatic, don’t have to do a thing., she said.

The biodome will use these technologies to maintain a 55-degree Fahrenheit internal temperature regardless of outside conditions. It will also include wheelchair ramps and paved floors to make the Center accessible to all.

Exciting opportunities available to the kids will include STEM workshops and a “run your own produce stand” activity at the Waterville Farmer’s Market. The Center will also hold community garden days for local enthusiasts of all ages.

Lavenson outlined for the Echo primary outcomes the Center hope to see. The Center aims to use this biodome to “improve nutrition for our youth, involve family members in the Garden-to-Table process so that nutritious diets are taken home and transferred to our families, and teach small business skills with a youth run Farmer’s Market stand at the Waterville Farmer’s Market.”

This biodome will expand the Youth Center’s capabilities in helping to combat the issue of childhood poverty in Maine. Approximately 43,000 children in Maine are living in poverty, defined as belonging to a household earning below $20,000 yearly income for a family of three.

While federal programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) aim to aid these families, purchasing power of such payments have dwindled from 2001-16, further squeezing parents. These programs also struggle to educate families regarding healthy food options and provide the funds to afford nutritious meals.

In line with these statewide trends, 90 percent of children which attend the Center’s after-school programs are eligible for free lunch programs. Already, the Center’s Sustainable Gardening Program and other offerings have enabled communities to achieve better childhood nutrition.

This past growing season, the Center’s 19 beds, which are managed and monitored by children attending the program, produced fresh produce to provide nutritious meals to the Kid’s Kitchen program. The Kitchen used this produce to provide nutritious meals to around 200 atrisk youth daily. This program also provided healthy school lunches to children from 75 families each week.

Lavenson summed up the Sustainable Gardening Program’s philosophy regarding invigorating communities via enabling the youth: “for about 60% of those kids, it’s the last hot meal they get before going to bed at night. So we feel that it’s very important not only to give them a healthy meal, but teach them about where it comes from and let them have a part in feeding themselves by tending this garden.”

She added, “Kids love it!”

The Center aims to use the biodome to expand their capability to aid and enable, and also provide these services during the nine months outside the growing season.

The Echo asked Lavenson what she is most excited to see once the biodome is opened. “The possibility of providing a real Garden-To-Table experience for our over 200 kids that attend our After School and Summer Enrichment programs daily. I can’t wait for them to plant, care for, and harvest the produce that they will then learn how to use in recipes, prepare healthy and nutritious dishes with them, then eat them in our Kid’s Kitchen. Our at risk youth will literally be feeding themselves a healthy diet.” she said.

Lavesnon explained that, through a lifetime of service to sustainable agriculture and gardening-oriented initiatives, Mary Nash Beaubre invigorated her communities and the state of Maine. Having learned these virtues from his mother, her sons are now paying it forward, thereby continuing their mother’s legacy and impact.

The impact of the Youth Center and the soon-to-be-opened biodome can be measured in terms of meals provided, the skills developed by enabled youth, the dedication of the project’s originators, such as corporate donors and Beaubre, or the passion of its coordinators, such as Lavenson herself.

Regardless of which metric is chosen, the Echo looks forward to documenting the value driven by the Mary Nash Beaubre biodome as it enables and excites Waterville’s children, and invigorates Maine communities.