Welcoming and Keeping Young Professionals in Maine
People know The Ecology School (TES) as an outdoor education center that serves young students from all over New England. A story less-told, however, is the impact that this educational experience has on the seasonal staff who come to Maine from all around the country.
Every year TES employs around 30 seasonal educators who are typically between the ages of 22 and 30. Many of these enthusiastic, well-educated, and passionate professionals experience living and working in Maine for the first time, and they develop a deep-seeded connection to the state. Many come back to TES to work for additional terms, while others seek opportunities to stay in Maine and make a difference through their work.
“This is the profile of the target demographic our state’s government, marketing, and economic development agencies are hoping to attract to Maine. We aren’t hoping to do it, we are doing it, year after year,” said Caitlin Brooke, Community Relations Coordinator, of The Ecology School.
For example, Katrina Venhuizen grew up in Austin, Texas and went to college in Madison, Wisconsin. Her career began in environmental education, finding seasonal jobs in diverse parts of the country. When one of her seasonal jobs ended, she was immediately in search of her next adventure. She landed an education position at TES, moved to Saco in frigid February, and got her first taste of life in Maine. “I’d only been to Maine once in 2000 for a stopover in Bangor, but the pictures of it were stunning,” Venhuizen said. During her free time on the weekends, she explored the area. Katrina found herself in Portland and instantly felt like she was home: the people were friendly, the food was incredible, and the ocean breeze was great. When her spring season at TES ended, she chose to stay in Portland. “It had everything I wanted in a place: beauty, four seasons, rocky shore, sandy shore, the big mammals that I loved, the birds that I loved, great food, the ocean and mountains. I fell in love,” she said. Now, years later, she remains in Maine, having taught at Maine Audubon, the Portland Water District, and currently as the environmental educator at ecomaine.
“Working at TES was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve had. Every teaching style was represented. Students had the freedom to learn in a new and more beautiful way than ever before,” said Venhuizen. “Waking up to the crashing waves and teaching in the salt marsh were two of my all-time favorite things!”
A Place to Call Home
Since its origin, TES has operated seasonally at the Ferry Beach Park Association in Saco. To amplify the mission and vision of the school, obtaining its own permanent location where educational programs, space, and seasonality could expand was critical.
Drew Dumsch, CEO and Founder of The Ecology School, identified River Bend Farm as an ideal campus for the expansion and relocation of the school. The 105 acre property, nestled on the Saco River just 20 minutes from the current site, quickly became the dream location of TES. Its rolling topography unfurls an environment rich with ecosystems including fresh water ponds, meadows, fields, substantial riverfront and an apple orchard – an environment where students and staff could explore, farm, educate, and grow.
The property seemed like the perfect location for a new campus, but the school could not wait for a bank to approve their major expansion. As time was running out, CEI stepped in with an understanding of complex financing needs and farm properties. By providing a bridge loan, and connections to a bank and USDA Rural Development for long-term financing, CEI enabled the project to move forward.
The purchase the River Bend Farm property was a first step in the development of the new campus, and a step forward in walking out its mission to foster stewardship for the Earth by reimagining education through the science of ecology and the practice of sustainability. “The Ecology School has an exceptionally key role in providing environmental educational services to public and private schools, by offering a valuable and affordable education they likely wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.” said Cole Palmer, CEI loan officer.
“Partnering with CEI on buying River Bend Farm has been one of the highlights of the project for me,” said CEO, Drew Dumsch. “Whether working with Cole Palmer and John Egan on the financing for the property or sitting down and discussing food systems with Gray Harris, I’m so impressed by how supportive and visionary CEI has been. For The Ecology School to now be a part of a wider network of CEI-funded rural development projects throughout Maine is an honor and an inspiration.”
Programming at the farm will include permaculture farming, agro-ecology, and sustainable living practices in their Living Building (living-future.org) campus, a designation given to the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment, going above and beyond LEED certification.
About The Ecology School
Since 1998, The Ecology School has brought innovative ecology education programs to more than 175,000 children and adults throughout New England and nationwide. In everything they do – leading overnight and day programs on their coastal campus, teaching outreach programs at schools, running camps and publishing curriculum and field guides – they accentuate the wonder of nature so that students can better understand and care for the environment. www.TheEcologySchool.org