Athol students recognized for art project at Riverbend School

Panels painted by nine Athol students now adorn the former Riverbend School, which will be redeveloped into mixed-income housing in the years ahead. The students were recognized for this contribution in a ceremony held last Saturday.

Panels painted by nine Athol students now adorn the former Riverbend School, which will be redeveloped into mixed-income housing in the years ahead. The students were recognized for this contribution in a ceremony held last Saturday. PHOTO BY GREG VINE—

Panels painted by nine Athol students now adorn the former Riverbend School, which will be redeveloped into mixed-income housing in the years ahead. The students were recognized for this contribution in a ceremony held last Saturday.

Panels painted by nine Athol students now adorn the former Riverbend School, which will be redeveloped into mixed-income housing in the years ahead. The students were recognized for this contribution in a ceremony held last Saturday. PHOTO BY GREG VINE—

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski praising the work of students who provided the artwork for the former Riverbend School.

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski praising the work of students who provided the artwork for the former Riverbend School. PHOTO BY GREG VINE—

(From left) NewVue Communities Director of Development and Marketing Kelly Flathers, Athol students Bronwyn Whitney, Alisha Cumberbatch, Samantha Oquendo, Zachary Carey, Mya Balins, Emma Martin, Elicia Bunker, and artist Amber Haney.

(From left) NewVue Communities Director of Development and Marketing Kelly Flathers, Athol students Bronwyn Whitney, Alisha Cumberbatch, Samantha Oquendo, Zachary Carey, Mya Balins, Emma Martin, Elicia Bunker, and artist Amber Haney. PHOTO BY GREG VINE—

By Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 12-04-2023 4:47 PM

ATHOL – Nine Athol students were recognized on Saturday for their role in adding a touch of art to the former Riverbend School.

Plans call for Riverbend and the nearby former Ellen Bigelow School to be transformed over the next few years into 54 units of low-income, workforce and senior housing. The schools have been vacant since 2016 and occasionally the targets of vandalism and graffiti.

Kerry Flathers, director of development and communication for NewVue Communities, which is spearheading the redevelopment effort, said the art project was initiated after Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski saw student artwork being installed on a Fitchburg building being rehabilitated by NewVue and asked about the possibility of a similar project for Athol. In response, Flathers submitted a grant application to the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts and was awarded $10,000 to make the Riverbend project a reality.

As a result, nine of the windows at Riverbend have been fitted with panels showcasing the students’ art. The work was done by Elecia Bunker, Catherine Giroux, Emma Martin, Isabelle Burke, Mya Balins, Zachary Casey, Samantha Oquendo, Alisha Cumberbatch and Bronwyn Whitney. During Saturday’s ceremony, the student artists were awarded certificates of recognition.

“The thinking, the theory that’s been out there for a while, is when you do something like this it gives those around it the message that this building has a future,” Flathers said. “And, we hope, it also gives the message that says local people worked on this – please don’t harm the building. If we can accomplish those two things, we’ll be thrilled.”

She cited Athol Facilities Director Brian Bruso as the project’s unsung hero, praising his incredible kindness and willingness to do the heavy lifting. While definite plans have yet to be formulated, Flathers said the Bigelow School could also see a similar project next year.

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“It may not be the same kind of project, but art is big now” Flathers said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, you couldn’t find foundations that wanted to support this kind of work. Bur art is absolutely exploding in a very, very good way.”

At the recognition ceremony, Suhoski thanked the students who did the artwork, as well as Athol Royalston Middle School Vice Principal Sharon Gilmore, who recruited the young artists, Amber Haney, the Fitchburg artist who coordinated the efforts, and NewVue.

“These beautiful panels that are filling these windows,” said Suhoski, “it’s representation of hope, isn’t it, of the future, of what this place can become in the future? Especially on a foggy day like today, I look at that and I see a ray of sunshine all the way down this wall right here…We hope that, in a couple of years, every window in both of these buildings will be replaced. This artwork will be preserved into the project, so it will live on as a legacy.”

Marc Dohan, executive director of NewVue, explained that, in addition to transforming the existing structures into mixed-income housing, a new building will be constructed that will connect Riverbend and Bigelow and also provide senior housing.

“These buildings will also be done historically,” he said, “so, when they’re done, they’ll look pretty much like they do now. They’ll be put on the National Register of Historic Places…We’re really excited to have this project here in Athol.”

NewVue has transformed a former school in Leominster into housing and is doing similar work in two former schools in Fitchburg.

“There’s two things I learned about students in Athol,” Flathers told those gathered in the Riverbend parking lot. “One, they know a lot about this town, and they’re really proud of Athol. So, the work you see here represents what they thought was important to be able to point out to people who drive by.”

Flathers said another thing she learned is, “If you need to get something done, do it Athol – do it Athol. We’ve had such a nice response, timely help, people who extended themselves, 100 percent enthusiasm, no speed bumps. The ‘we can get it done’ attitude was a complete joy.’”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.