MILBRIDGE, Maine — In 1999, Mano en Mano had $4,000 in the bank, Director Ian Yaffe said Monday.
But the nonprofit group, which offers education and advocacy for agriculture and aquaculture workers, held a grand opening Monday for its $1.4 million six-unit subsidized apartment project, Hand In Hand Apartments.
Moments after the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday, Jamie Thompson-Ostorga held her 4-year-old daughter Carmen and looked around one of the apartment units in a bit of daze.
She had just been told that hers was one of six families that will be living in the subsidized unit.
“You just don’t know what this means to me,” she said.
Thompson-Ostorga, her daughter, her 7-year-old son Alexander and her husband, Reynaldo Ostorga, have been living with her grandparents in Milbridge for years.
“Apartments are so expensive,” she said, adding they were no match for her husband’s paychecks, earned working on a lobster boat or in the blueberry fields.
But the grandparents’ home is about to be foreclosed. “We were going to be without a home,” she said. Instead, the family will move into the new housing on Friday.
The Thompson-Ostorga family is exactly the type of family Mano en Mano hopes to serve through Hand In Hand Apartments, Yaffe said. For 20 years, the group has served immigrant workers and their families who have settled in the seaside community.
The creation of the apartment complex is part of Mano en Mano’s goal to provide education, advocacy and affordable housing to farm workers, regardless of ethnicity.
“But farm workers are not the only ones to find themselves in a housing crisis,” Yaffe told more than 70 people who attended the grand opening. “Seventy-one percent of Milbridge households cannot afford median housing. There are 67 families on the waiting list for Milbridge’s other subsidized apartments.”
“This project is not enough,” Yaffe said of Hand In Hand Apartments. “But it is a first step.”
So far, two families who work in the blueberry industry, a sternman on a lobster boat and a clam digger have applied to live in the apartments.
“This project is an opportunity for families to stay in Milbridge, where they can enrich the community and foster our sense of place,” Yaffe said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Coastal Enterprises Inc. provided low-cost loans — $1.7 million from USDA and $220,000 from CEI — for construction and support for subsidized leases. Dignitaries from both agencies were on hand Monday.
Virginia Manuel, state director of USDA Rural Development, called the apartment project “a
landmark,” while Maine’s Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, who is also a farmer, said, “Those of us who grow your food thank you.”
Whitcomb said families that work the sea, the fields, the farms and the barrens are vital to Maine’s economy. “We are standing here in a place where truly weary workers will come to rest,” he said.
Ron Phillips of CEI said he was astounded at the creativity in Washington County. “At our annual meeting in Freeport in February, we honored three innovative projects. They were all from Washington County: Tide Mill Farms, Axiom Technologies and Mano en Mano.
“There are economic and investment opportunities in Washington County,” he said, encouraging the rest of the state to pay attention. “It is going to be important to invest in ventures and enterprises here.
“Washington County is often thought of as the poorest of counties but you also have riches of people and place, and great potential here,” he said.
The grand opening included a tour of one of the apartments and a luncheon.