It’s been almost 20 years since my wife and I moved into our 200-year-old home in Bar Mills and, within a few days, happened upon a treasure.

No, it wasn’t a bag of gold coins under the attic floorboards or some other long-forgotten nest egg. This was something much more valuable.

The sound of happy children.

Our backyard abuts what at the time was the Eliza Libby School, home away from home for 100-plus kindergartners and first-graders. The school’s playground – a sprawling array of swings, slides and other colorful attractions – ran right up to a chain-link fence that kept the kids from wandering into the thick woods behind our house.

But the barrier didn’t stop the sound. On weekdays when I happened to be home, the shouts and squeals of kids careening through a half-hour of recess stopped me in my tracks every time. Sometimes I’d try to pick out individual conversations. Other times I’d just sit on the porch and soak up the chaotic, delirious din.

Then in 2010, it all went silent. The new Buxton Elementary School opened on the other side of town and Eliza Libby School was no longer.

As joyous as a school playground sounds during recess, there’s nothing quite so melancholic as a playground where kids no longer play.

Parents brought their little tots around now and then for a few years, but as the weeds grew and the bright colors faded, the place slowly became but a neighborhood memory. Tucked away from nearby Main Street, it surrendered at night to older kids, their voices muffled as they drank their beer and smoked their cigarettes amid the gray, tinder-dry wood chips.

Fast-forward to Monday evening, when Andrea and I heard a strange commotion out back and, peering through the thicket, witnessed the flash of lights and the hum of machinery darting to-and-fro.

I headed out through the thorny underbrush to investigate. Nearing the fence, I saw 15 or so men and boys, all hard at work raking, yanking weeds and pulling out what was left of a rotted wooden wall next to the old broken slide.

A man in a John Deere yard tractor whizzed by, his front-end bucket brimming with fresh wood shavings. “Can someone tell me what’s going on?” I hollered over the racket.

Pointing to a teenage boy striding purposely toward us, he replied with a smile, “That’s the man you want to talk to.”

Bonny Eagle High School junior Luke Plummer poses for a portrait near the Eliza Libby School playground on Thursday in Buxton. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Meet Luke Plummer. A 16-year-old junior at Bonny Eagle High School, he’s a member of the National Honor Society and serves in the student government. He’s also active in scouting, has been since first grade.

“We’re restoring the playground,” Luke, poised and polite, explained to me. “It’s my Eagle Scout project.”

It all started last spring when Lori Napolitano, assistant superintendent for School Administrative District 6, put out a plea for help to student groups at Bonny Eagle: With district resources already stretched thin and the old playground becoming more of an attractive nuisance by the day, might some kids at the school be interested in rescuing it?

“It was really getting neglected, it was super overgrown and some of the equipment was broken,” Napolitano said Friday from her office at district headquarters, which sits adjacent to the site. “It wasn’t really usable anymore, and then we’re starting to find empty bottles and things back there. Then last spring, we had a little smoldering cigarette fire in the wood chips and a Buxton cop had to come and put it out with a fire extinguisher.”

Two days after Napolitano’s SOS to the high school, Luke stepped forward. His sights firmly set on becoming an Eagle Scout – the highest rank in scouting – he wanted a project that would have real impact, something that truly would benefit the community.

He put together a detailed plan and presented it to Napolitano and other SAD 6 leaders. They agreed to provide mounds of new wood chips and replacement equipment. Luke said he’d provide the muscle.

“I know there are a lot of kids who live around that area,” he said. “And I realized that it could be a great place for parents to take their kids, or for kids who are a little bit older to walk to in the summertime … if it wasn’t all grown over and a mess.”

His work crew, drawing heavily from Buxton’s Boy Scouts of America Troop 349, consists of a dozen or so kids and seven adults, including three who have shown up with their bucket loaders when the need arises.

In all, they’ve convened more than 20 times over the last few months, uprooting weeds, felling small trees and laying down a new carpet of sweet-smelling wood chips around the clusters of equipment. They even cleared an overgrown area around a marble bench dedicated to Elizabeth Casey, who taught for 18 years at Eliza Libby School before her death in 2001.

“I didn’t even know the bench was there,” Luke said.

Still to come are a new lawn and trash cans – courtesy of Plummer’s Hardware in West Buxton, co-owned by Luke’s dad, Garrett Plummer.

Luke, who’s not surprisingly eying a business major when he heads for college in two years, should have no trouble grasping the ins and outs of project management. Before each work session, he emails a detailed plan to his volunteers, laying out the goals for that afternoon or evening and specifying who’s going to do what.

Jim Turgeon, the guy in the John Deere, attended Eliza Libby School back in the late 1980s. Now 39 and the father of three scouts – Wyatt, Jayden and Anthony – he laughed when asked how it feels to be supervised by a 16-year-old.

“It’s not bad, actually,” Turgeon said. “He has a plan ready – and we execute it.”

Scott Kovacs, the leader of Troop 349, told me that as Eagle projects go, “this is one of the more ambitious ones that we’ve had in the past several years – basically in terms of scope, and obviously in terms of leadership.”

“We’re so proud of Luke,” Kovacs added. “Not only all that he’s done for himself with this project and for the troop, but for the community as well.”

I’ll second that. At a time when communities far and wide feel strained to the breaking point by the pandemic and all its political rancor, along comes a kid whose only goal is to make this neck of the woods a little safer, a little more attractive and a lot more welcoming.

Our long-lost playground is back. It’s music to my ears.


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