Lydia Butler, Lexi Davis and Dani Domenichelli (left to right) chat while making artwork in the Bridge program at Waterfall Arts in Belfast on Wednesday. The program is a free after-school art club for sixth graders.

BELFAST, Maine — On a recent afternoon, a boisterous crowd of sixth graders drew, painted, wrote, doodled — and chatted and giggled — in a classroom at Waterfall Arts.

The students were part of BRIDGE, a free after-school program for young artists to explore and support each other. It is clearly a hit with participants.

“I just like drawing and being able to be myself without people judging me,” Dani Domenichelli, 11, of Belfast said.

Another young artist, Dawson Yeaton, 13, of Belfast, agreed.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“It gives you a lot of creative freedom,” he said of the program.

But the classroom also has some issues, including an art supply closet so cold that paint stored there froze during the recent coldsnap.

That’s a problem that Bridget Matros, the youth and families outreach coordinator at the nonprofit community arts center, said should be solved soon, thanks to the “Waterfall Rising” capital campaign, which just entered its public phase.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The $2.6 million fundraising campaign has the goal of transforming the 84-year-old former elementary school building by buttoning up its exterior, reducing its energy use and making it accessible to more people thanks to a new three-story elevator and ADA-compliant facilities. It would also fix the pothole-ridden parking lot, add landscaping, and create a new facade and entry lobby to better help visitors understand where they are and what is going on at Waterfall Arts. If all goes well, construction will start by the end of next summer.

“I’m most excited about the building being more welcoming,” Matros said. “It’s not welcoming for people to feel confusion when they walk in the doors.”

In 2000, husband-and-wife Alan and Lorna Crichton co-founded the Arts Center at Kingdom Falls in Montville as a place where area artists could come together to offer experiences for all ages and skill levels. Five years later, after Belfast’s Governor Anderson School closed, city officials seeking to repurpose it encouraged the Crichtons to expand their program and establish a year-round arts center there.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

That’s what happened, Alan Crichton said. The school has about 8,000 visits a year, and features exhibitions, art classes, events, performances, clay, print and photography studios, free and low-cost after-school programs, public art projects, and studio space where artists and teachers can work.

“We don’t charge an admission fee. We want to make it accessible. We believe in the creative empowerment of everybody,” he said, adding that the old school has been a great home but needs a little work. “It’s a wonderful old building. Since we bought it, we’ve Band-Aided it here and Band-Aided it there. We want to bring it right up into the 21st century so all of our energies can go into programs.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The fundraising campaign is chugging right along, said Crichton, who also is the capital campaign chair. The organization has already raised $1.2 million of the $2.6 million needed to complete the project, including a $350,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The grant will help Waterfall Arts to remove and replace old building materials, such as asbestos classroom tiles, with state-of-the-art green materials.

The money that has already been raised makes him feel confident that the rest will come.

“We’re opening the doors and asking everybody,” Alan Crichton said. “Everything helps.”