ST. FRANCIS, Maine — Jerome and Joyce Jackson knew they had found the house of their dreams in St. Francis. What there were not expecting was being embraced by the small community where they just moved to raise their 11 children.
“Finding a home for the Jacksons was no easy feat,” joked Joyce Jackson last week as she hosted officials from the USDA’s Rural Development program, which helped the family secure financing for the home through its single-family housing direct 502 program. “Once we got approved for that financing we developed a list [and] we knew we did not want to compromise on space or number of rooms.”
The Jacksons had been compromising on space and basic comforts in their previous home, which USDA officials described as “overcrowded [with] a leaky roof which caused a mold problem [and] this mold problem caused some respiratory problems with several of their children.”
The seven-bedroom, 3½-bathroom, three-story home with a garage and huge lawn on the St. John River is a big step up for the Jacksons and their children, who range in age from 1 to 16.
“Our last home had just one bathroom, no doors on the bedrooms and a faulty septic system,” Joyce Jackson said. “Now I just wake up smiling every day.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Jerome Jackson is a truck driver and Joyce home-schools all but one of the children, who will attend special education classes in Fort Kent.
“I did not even know what St. Francis was and Jerome wanted to rule it out before we even came up to look at the house,” Joyce Jackson said. “But we wanted to look at everything and the moment we got here and saw it, we canceled every other house viewing we had.”
Part of that decision was the size and layout of the remodeled home originally built in the early 1900s, boasting a new kitchen, woodwork, large rooms in which the family can gather, enough bedrooms to spread out and a view of Canada.
But perhaps a bigger part was the welcome reception.
“We came in March and there was a couple feet of snow on the driveway,” Jerome Jackson said. “Right off, someone was here with a plow and cleared it for us.”
Soon after, neighbor Judy Pelletier was there, offering to look after the younger children while the Jacksons toured the house.
“She took the children over to her house and next thing I knew, she was feeding them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Joyce Jackson said. “She’s been like our mom.”
For Jerome, that local response meant one thing.
“We could come here to a place where family is important,” he said. “And have a sense of real community.”
While the Jackson children ran and rode their scooters around the property last week, Joyce and Jerome offered tours of the new home to visiting officials and media.
“Yeah, when we travel together that’s what we use,” Joyce said with a laugh, pointing to the full-size school bus parked in front. “It’s the only thing big enough.”
Inside, all was neat and spotless, and Joyce said consistency is a big part of her routine.
“It may seem silly,” she said as she opened up a kitchen cupboard door and pointed to the plates and bowls, all stacked according to color. “But if I have the kids stack the dishes the same way all the time, it teaches them they need to do things according to instructions and to do it the right way.”
For their part, the younger Jacksons are thrilled with the house.
“I really like the size and it’s really comfortable compared to our other house,” Josiah, 16, said. “And it’s nice to have neighbors.”
Pelletier could not be happier with her new neighbors.
“I love [that] they are here,” Pelletier said. “We all need to be [like] family and do for each other [and] I remember what it was like when I moved here and people helped me.”
June, according to Virginia Manuel, state director for USDA Rural Development, is “homeownership month” and the Jacksons typify the kinds of family her agency helps attain that goal.
“In this case, we are the lending agency, just like a bank,” Manual said. “We are thrilled to be able to help this family get into a home of this size that will so perfectly meet their needs.”
As happy as they are in St. Francis, Joyce did say it was with mixed feelings they left their old home in Ashland.
“We loved the people there,” she said. “But we have to do what is best for our family.”
The mold situation had grown so bad in that old home, she said, several of the children had been placed on medication as a direct result of respiratory problems it caused.
But now the family is only looking ahead to their new life in a new home in a new community where they continue to be overwhelmed.
“We went last Sunday to attend services at the Baptist church in Allagash,” Joyce Jackson said. “After services, the minister’s wife was talking to us and I mentioned we were looking for a used piano. Next thing I know, they are bringing out an electric piano to give us, telling me, ‘We want to bless you with this.’”
Certainly, it was obvious to the regular congregation at the small church there were newcomers among them.
“We took up two pews and our presence was known,” Joyce Jackson said.
“Mom, our presence is always known,” 15-year-old Jehiel said with a laugh.
Joyce and Jerome are used to causing a bit of a stir when they show up with the entire family in tow.
“They just call us the ‘Jackson tribe,’” Joyce Jackson said. “We really should go and paint that on the bus.”
For now, Jerome and Joyce Jackson are feeling double blessed that their children have the room to play and explore, but Joyce did say she is already preparing for the long northern Maine winter when the children may not want to go outside as much.
“The entire upstairs of the garage is a playroom for them,” she said. “So I’m practicing now saying, ‘Go to the garage.’”