Ecology School Director Drew Dumsch sings “Singing in the Rain” at a ground breaking ceremony at River Bend Farm on Tuesday. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

SACO — Rain fell as a crowd gathered outside Tuesday for the groundbreaking of two new buildings at the Ecology School, but the precipitation didn’t dampen the spirit of Ecology School Executive Director Drew Dumsch.

Dumsch stood up to address visitors to the school’s River Bend Farm campus on Simpson Road, opened up an umbrella and burst into a rendition of “Singing in the Rain.”

Dumsch said he moved to Maine 29 years ago to become an environmental educator. During the second week he was teaching, he was outdoors with some fifth graders from Massachusetts when a torrential downpour hit.

“They were laughing in the rain, they were singing in the rain, and that second week of teaching environmental education confirmed right there that taking kids outside and having authentic experiences in nature is life changing and fills you with happiness and joy,” said Dumsch.

Dumsch had plenty to be happy and joyful about on Tuesday morning. The school was breaking ground on a 9,000-square-foot dormitory and a 7,000-square-foot dining commons. The buildings, which are expected to be completed by spring 2020, will meet criteria for the Living Building Challenge green building certification program. Residential programs are currently being held at Poland Springs Resort in Poland, Maine.

“Welcome to the site of what will become one of the greenest, most sustainable and most innovative learning centers in the entire country,” said Dumsch.

Dumsch co-founded the Ecology School in 1998, and for many years the school operated on leased property from the Ferry Beach Association.

The Ecology School provides interactive, hands-on environmental educational programs to more than 13,000 participants a year. Students come from both local schools and other areas of New England to participate in both over night and day programs.

The school purchased River bend Farm in 2017, a 105-acre property with fields, orchards, forest, ponds and frontage on the Saco River. The property includes a 1794 farmhouse that is used as office space, and agricultural structures. Ninety-six acres of the property are under a conservation easement with the Maine Farmland Trust, and building can only occur on a designated 8.75-acre area.

Ground is ceremoniously broken at River Bend Farm on Tuesday. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

The two buildings are part of a $12.5 million project. Solar panels will be installed that will provide enough energy to run the school, plus 5 percent extra. Rain gardens will be installed to catch storm water to irrigate farm fields. The dining room kitchen will include energy efficiency appliances and bathrooms will have low-flow toilets, faucets and showers.

“This project at the Ecology School is unlike any other. The land and the buildings that we see here today are about so much more than the present. This is about Maine’s farming heritage and Maine’s farming ecological future,” said Bobbi Crooker, regional director of USDA Rural Development, which helped to secure loans for the project. Crooker said students who come to the farm will learn sustainable agricultural practices and the skills to become good stewards of the environment.

“What a spectacularly beautiful place,” said U.S Rep. Chellie Pingree at Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony. She said she was an organic farmer and is a true believer in environmental education. It’s critical to make sure young people have the tools and understand the works that needs to be done to mitigate climate change, Pingree said.

Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be reached at 780-9015 or by email at [email protected].

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