The Star-Herald

Wintergreen looking to expand outreach as pandemic moves into new year

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As 2020 comes to a close, the folks at Wintergreen Arts Center are grateful for the successes they’ve gained in the past year, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to adapt and begin 2021 with an even more cautious mindset.

The nonprofit’s biggest achievements involved its move to the Aroostook Centre Mall this past summer and the unexpected opportunities that have come about from doing more online outreach during the pandemic, Wintergreen executive director Dottie Hutchins said.

In September, Wintergreen officially moved from its former 2,100-square-foot space on State Street to the 5,309-square-foot location in the mall. Thanks to volunteers from Wintergreen and donations from local and former residents, the organization has been able to enter the space debt free, only paying for necessary plumbing and electric costs.

The successful move, coupled with increased grant funding from Maine-based arts organizations, has allowed Wintergreen to remain stable financially and discuss how they could potentially expand programming after the pandemic becomes a lesser threat in Aroostook County.

“We would love to get involved with some type of music program as well as give kids more creative writing opportunities,” Hutchins said. “One of the challenges is finding someone who is willing and able to work for us after school.”

Prior to the initial shutdown of local schools in March, board member Gretchen Violette had begun working with students as part of a new theater program. The risks involved with people singing and potentially spreading COVID-19 have since forced that program to stop for the time being.

When theater programs can operate safely, Violette hopes to recruit middle school-aged students to perform regular productions at Wintergreen. She said that having early exposure to the performing arts could build students’ confidence before they take part in high school productions.

“There are limited opportunities for kids in grades five through eight to have theater training. It’s a struggle for many teachers to provide arts materials if they don’t have enough support,” Violette said. “If we can encourage kids to have more confidence in front of their peers, they’ll thrive onstage.”

For now, Wintergreen has limited the size of both after-school classes, which run on the same days and times for six weeks, to no more than 10 students per class. But even the size limitations have not stopped them from seeing an increase of around a dozen students who previously had not taken Wintergreen classes.

Most of those new students are thriving in the most recent addition to Wintergreen’s curriculum: digital arts, Hutchins said. Local graphic designer and videographer Josh Archer has taught students both online and in person throughout the pandemic using free software that students can access from anywhere.

Learning more about digital art technologies has allowed many students to unlock their own talents and potential as artists.

“Some of those kids are unbelievably talented. What they’re learning is beyond anything that I know,” Hutchins said. “Even before the recent closure [of SAD 1 schools] the kids were already using the software online at home.”

Though the initial two-month period of online learning last spring was unexpected, Wintergreen’s staff has seen the benefits of maintaining an online presence. Their free “webisodes” of after-school arts gained views from families who typically did not attend in-person classes. 

The videos also gave parents reassurance that their children could enjoy safe, educational materials outside of their normal school days.

“Families looked forward to seeing us online. It meant that their kids could actually learn from an instructor instead of watching movies or playing video games,” Violette said.

With their partnership with Aroostook Regional Transportation Center in place, Wintergreen will continue providing after-school transportation to the mall when SAD 1 schools go back to in-person learning on Jan. 4. Their preschool classes are also on track to potentially return to in-person instruction that same day.

As COVID-19 cases continue rising in Aroostook County, the chances of Wintergreen needing to go fully online again will remain. But, thanks to both the challenges and successes of the past year, those involved with the organization believe even more strongly that they can adapt to even the worst of situations.

“Between the online and in-person classes, I think we’ve shown that we’re doing what we can to remain relevant,” Hutchins said. 

Violette agreed and noted that by the end of the pandemic Wintergreen, an organization that will celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2021, will be as ready as ever to grow for the future.

“Wintergreen has a life of its own and, like any life, it evolves the older it gets,” Violette said. 

Wintergreen Arts Center’s preschool space will likely hold in-person classes again on Jan. 4, in conjunction with SAD 1 schools’ reopening. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

Wintergreen Arts Center’s preschool space will likely hold in-person classes again on Jan. 4, in conjunction with SAD 1 schools’ reopening. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

The Creative Space Studio is one of many new additions to Wintergreen Arts Center thanks to its new location at Aroostook Centre Mall. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

The Creative Space Studio is one of many new additions to Wintergreen Arts Center thanks to its new location at Aroostook Centre Mall. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

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