WATERVILLE — A nonprofit preschool in Oakland that serves children with autism and other special needs is getting a big boost with its planned move to the former Seton Hospital campus on Chase Avenue in Waterville.

Woodfords Family Services at 47 Heath St. will move at the end of the year into a new $900,000 building constructed for Woodfords at the Chase Avenue property.

The 5,100-square-foot school, built by H.E. Callahan Construction Co., of Auburn, will replace the current 1,500-square-foot Woodfords school, more than doubling its space, according to Mark Eves, who will become Woodfords’ executive director on Monday and is also the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

“The need is immediate and growing, and when we talk about early intervention with kids, timing is imperative,” Eves said in an interview.

Eves is a marriage and family therapist who now is development officer for Woodfords, a social services agency based in Westbrook that serves more than 1,500 people statewide with special needs in 14 programs the agency operates. The Oakland preschool is one of three Woodfords operates; the other two are in Topsham and Westbrook.

Developer Kevin Mattson, of Dirigo Capital Advisors, funded construction of the new building at 30 Chase Ave. and will rent it to Woodfords, which has a 10-year lease. Mattson bought the former hospital property three years ago and is planning an $8 million-to-$10 million renovation of the former hospital building that will turn it into apartments and offices.

While a groundbreaking was held for the Woodfords preschool a year ago, the project was delayed because of concern about funding for such services; but the Legislature overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill, L.D. 1696, ultimately making the funding possible.

Woodfords preschools operate primarily with state funding through Child Development Services in the state Department of Education, and MaineCare, and receive referrals through Child Development, as well as from doctors and other providers. Child Development, which has an office on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville, provides case management and direct instruction for families with children from birth to age 5.

Woodfords raises money for some of its needs and determined that $75,000 was needed to help pay for items for the new building on Chase Avenue, including furniture; a washer, a dryer and other appliances; a playground that will be built outside the school; cubbyholes for classroom storage; and other necessities.

An annual auction was held about a week ago in South Portland that raised about $50,000, according to Eves. Woodfords also holds an annual appeal, hosts a 5-kilometer race in Brunswick and has corporate sponsors.

“We try to go out and tell the story about what Woodfords does and why it is important,” Eves said.

Mattson has been very generous, he said, not only in constructing the building and offering his time and resources, but also in his interest in what Woodfords does, according to Eves.

“He believes in the development that’s going on here,” he said. “He has been really amazing to work with.”

Officials at Child Development Services weren’t available for comment, but Mattson said Friday that after he toured the Woodfords school in Westbrook, he was struck by how critical the need was for a state-of-the-art building for the Oakland preschool and decided to built it.

“It’s going to be spectacular, and I think what’s most amazing about it is the population of kids that it serves,” Mattson said.

REGIONAL REACH

Eves said 15 children ages 3 to 5 attend the Oakland preschool, which is cramped and too small for its needs. Fifteen staff members work there as well. The new 12-room school building with five bathrooms will provide space enough for up to 30 children and 15 more staff members, he said.

Bryan Belliveau, H.E. Callahan’s project superintendent for the new building, gave a tour of the facility Wednesday for Eves and the preschool’s advisory board.

Belliveau said construction started in August and the building is scheduled to be completed Dec. 6. The one-story, wood-frame building features three large classrooms with a lot of windows and light, as well as a reception area, space for parent and staff meetings, a motor skills development room, an arts and crafts room and other rooms.

Painting is scheduled to start Wednesday, and acoustic ceilings will be installed throughout the building, Belliveau said.

Heavy equipment was operating outside, doing earthwork to prepare for installing power to the building and telecommunications, he said.

Betsy Tipper, a member of Woodfords’ preschool advisory committee who toured the building, said she had been watching it go up but Wednesday’s tour provided her a first glimpse inside.

“I’m very impressed with the thoughtfulness in how they designed it,” Tipper said. “It’s appropriate for our area children.”

Children who attend the Oakland site are from central Maine and beyond. One boy travels every day from Jackman — more than 80 miles away — to attend the school, according to Eves.

“That just demonstrates the lack of availability of services and our regional reach,” he said.

SERVING CHILDREN

Thomas R.W. Longstaff, another advisory committee member who took the tour, said the space represents a big improvement for staff and students.

“It’s going to serve the children so well,” said Longstaff, who also is a state representative from Waterville. “Having a new facility rather than one adjusting to your use means things can be, from the outset, the way it’s most efficient to have them. I’m excited. I think it’s going to be great.”

Other committee members who toured the building Wednesday were Tiffany Laliberty, who is a member of the Waterville Board of Education, and Dan Eccher, a Waterville attorney.

Founded in 1967, Woodfords programs and services, besides preschools, include those that deal with community case management for children, teens and adults; housing for adults who can not live independently; in-home support services to help children be part of family and community life; psychiatry services, including medication management; outpatient treatment; home and community treatment; training programs for parents and professionals; peer support groups for children with siblings who have special needs; day programs for adults with special needs that focus on community inclusion; administration of monthly activity night for adults with special needs; therapeutic foster care; and behavioral consultation.

Preschools help to teach the children cognitive skills and talk, communication, play and leisure skills, pre-academics, reduction of unwanted behavior, self-help skills and social skills, according to the Woodfords website.

The staff and caregivers at Woodfords do remarkable work with children, said Mattson, the project developer, who said he is committed to furthering that work. Initially, the Oakland preschool was to have moved into the Seton building itself after renovations were completed there, but Woodfords needed to move more quickly in finding a place, he said.

Mattson said he sees millions of dollars going to colleges for athletic fields and other activities, but not nearly enough is spent for early childhood education and services, which is where that need is most critical.

“It should be the first place the money is spent. It should be the highest priority, but it isn’t,” Mattson said. “It starts at a very young age. This is a high-need population, but it is so important to communities — particularly rural communities — to have access to facilities like this. Urban communities like Portland often have an advantage in that way.”

Mattson, a member of the board for Maine Early Childhood Learning Investment Group, which consists of chief executive officers who raise money for early childhood initiatives, will host a benefit dinner Nov. 1 in Waterville for Woodfords that will bring high-end Portland chefs to prepare the cuisine.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.