Someone spray painted the letters "RIP" and a heart near the Unity College sign on Quaker Hill Road after administrators rocked the community with the news that they planned to permanently abandon its traditional campus model and explore selling the 240-acre main campus. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

UNITY, Maine — When Unity College grad Jodie Ellithorpe heard the abrupt news last week of faculty and staff layoffs and other dramatic changes at her alma mater, she got sad.

Then she got busy.

Ellithorpe, a first-grade teacher from Johnstown, New York, is organizing an in-person reunion for alumni and others beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Field of Dreams park in Unity.

She’s hoping for a large turnout to share their college experiences.

“I wanted to make sure that we had an outlet, so that we weren’t just seething at home by ourselves,” she said Thursday.

Initially, Ellithorpe wanted to hold the gathering at the school’s main campus, which could be sold eventually as the college makes a permanent shift away from its traditional campus in favor of a hybrid education model that includes online and distance learning.

But Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury said it wasn’t possible for alumni to meet there because of the pandemic.

“Once we are able to reopen the 90 Quaker Hill Campus, I would love to host you all as we always have,” Khoury wrote in an email to Ellithorpe.

Last week, Khoury said the college would permanently shift away from its traditional campus model, saying the move was necessary for the college to remain solvent in a difficult time for higher education.

The announcement angered alumni and worried residents in the small town of Unity, where the college has been a mainstay for more than 50 years. Since then, emotions have been running high in the community. The words “RIP” were recently spray-painted at the entrance to the college campus in response to the news.

Not being allowed back on campus stung Ellithorpe, who graduated in 2004 with a degree in environmental studies.

“That was a little extra hurt for me,” she said. “It’s not just a bunch of buildings and a woodlot. It’s our community. We’ve all gotten so much out of it.”

But instead, her planned gathering will be held at the nearby Field of Dreams complex, which was developed in the 1990s by local philanthropists Bert and Coral Clifford and donated to the college with the provision that the community can use it for free. She’s encouraging those who come to bring a chair, blanket, snacks, water and a face mask, and to comply with social-distancing guidelines.

The gathering is open to all who support the town and school. It will be “free-flowing,” Ellithorpe said, and may include a walk up to the college entrance — though not beyond.

“I want to share stories with friends and be in that space,” she said. “I don’t think we need to make it about anything other than our love and respect for our school.”