GARDINER — When Tookie Gregoire walked into the Boys & Girls Club in Gardiner 16 years ago looking for a job, he probably didn’t get the response he was looking for.

“He came in with his hoodie on,” Ingrid Stanchfield, the club’s CEO said. “I’m like, ‘Take that hoodie off and let me see your face, and I might be able to talk to you.'”

For about a dozen years, Gregoire was either a club kid or a program assistant for what was then the Boys & Girls Club of Gardiner.

On Thursday, he walked through the front door of the new $10 million building now under construction for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kennebec Valley as a member of the organization’s board of directors, who were getting a first-hand look at the progress of construction that’s expected to wrap up later this year.

“This is amazing,” Gregoire said, standing in the shell of what will be the Teen Center. “I wish we had this when I was here.”

One week short of a year ago, dozens of people — including club board members, local officials and club kids — were on hand to watch the ground being broken on the the facility that’s being built next to the club’s current home. For more than two decades, the Boys & Girls Clubs, which got its start as the successor to the Gardiner recreation program, has occupied the former Pray Street School.

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When it became clear that the 50-year-old building had reached the end of its useful life, club officials started to consider their options. The result was to plan for a new, larger building that would accommodate expanded child care offerings and increase its capacity to serve school-age children in after-school programs. The new clubhouse is expected to be the largest child care facility of its type in central Maine.

And in about four months, club officials expect to celebrate the completion of the new, larger building and its outside play areas.

Against the background noise of ongoing construction and skirting around stacks of materials and fixtures scheduled for installation, Gregoire was among about two dozen people who spent an hour viewing the gym; the dining room; rooms for childcare, pre- and post-school activities; and the Teen Center.

The old Boys & Girls Clubs of Kennebec Valley clubhouse can be seen through the window Thursday at the new clubhouse in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I was just thinking about the old building,” Gregoire said. “It created a home. Now, this is modern, and I feel like it’s going to give especially this next generation that same feeling of home.”

After graduating from Gardiner Area High School, he headed off to St. Joseph’s College, returning to the club to help build a playground that the club had raised funds for.

Now a recruiter for the Army National Guard, Gregoire said he would tell future club kids that they are more than just another person to those who work for the organization.

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“The Boys & Girls Club slogan is ‘A positive place for kids,'” he said. “But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s a place where, whether you have an actual family or not — it’s another place to have a family. And just understanding that it started with an old raggedy building, and now it’s this and it’s going to continue.”

Todd Valentine, the club’s project manager, showed the security measures that have been built into the design of the building, including doors that can be locked from the inside of the classrooms as well as direct access from the rooms to outside, where children can play in age-appropriate recreation areas.

He also showed the gymnasium and cafeteria areas at the south end of the new building that will also be available for wider use when not in use by the club.

“We really want this to be a community center,” Gena Canning, one of three capital campaign committee chairpersons, said on the tour.

Elisha Rice, left, shows her new office to her son, Jordan Smith, during a tour Thursday at the new Boys & Girls Clubs of Kennebec Valley clubhouse in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Fundraising for the facility has been underway for a number of years, with the public phases kicking off in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic halted fundraising and delayed the start of construction by about a year.

When the federal budget passed earlier this year, club officials secured $650,000 in federal money to help reach the end of fundraising.

In announcing the funding, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said community institutions are wonderful assets that bring families and neighbors together. She noted that the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kennebec Valley provides childcare for working families, creates a safe, structured environment for children to play and learn, and offers services to older adults.

As the ranking member on the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, Collins, Maine’s Republican senior senator, co-authored the Housing Appropriations bill, which included the funding.

Once the new building is completed, the Pray Street School will be demolished and replaced with the Level Playing Field, built in memory of Charles F. Canning, the late, retired CEO of Pine State Trading Co.

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