ORLAND, Maine — On the Saturday morning before Christmas, Jennifer Jacques’ little house seemed full-to-bursting, though not necessarily with things.
As the single mom chatted on the couch, her two daughters industriously made cards for friends as cheerful holiday music jingled out of the radio and the family’s pet kittens cavorted around the Christmas tree. The family’s home — better known around this part of Maine as the ‘Itty Bitty House’ project –– may not yet be quite finished, but it is definitely fully stocked with love, gratitude and a lot of hope for the future.
“Everywhere I look, I still see the faces of the people who have contributed to the project,” Jacques said. “They’re with me always. It’s a very comforting thing. It has definitely restored my faith in humanity.”
Over the last year and a half, dozens of people gave freely of their time, sweat and knowledge to help transform a 660-square-foot mouse-infested garage with a bare concrete floor into a cozy home for Jacques and daughters Asha Kirkland, 14, and Aria Tapman, 6. It is the first home the trio has ever owned, and after years spent bouncing between rental apartments and house sitting opportunities, their lives already feel transformed, in the best of ways.
Jacques, who until very recently worked as a waitress and housekeeper earning about $21,000 a year, had struggled to provide basic necessities for her family. They had car trouble constantly. Sometimes she couldn’t pay the electric bill, and power would get shut off. It was hard to imagine paying off the $35,000 in student loans that piled up while the single mother earned her education degree at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“Poverty is this never-ending cycle,” she said. “It’s a chronic level of stress. You’re constantly in survival mode.”
She hoped that owning a house would diminish the panic and stress levels of their lives, giving her more of a chance to look for a full-time job and then break the cycle of poverty for good.
“I just really felt like this kind of opportunity could propel my life in a different direction,” Jacques said.
This fall, way ahead of Jacques’ hoped-for timeline, she found a job working 40 hours a week in the office of the Penobscot Community School just a few miles away. Her daughters, who previously had been home-schooled, were able to go to school there, too.
“Now, we have a stable income. We have a stable house,” she said. “It means a lack of momentum when it comes to working on the house — but it adds a rhythm and routine to our lives that was lacking.”
This winter, as her work finishing the Itty Bitty House has slowed, Jacques and her daughters have had time to reflect on what the army of volunteers meant, both in terms of help and in goodwill. She found that army after she posted fliers and used social media to ask friends and strangers to donate labor or materials to make the garage a home. Some gave money, too — about $6,000 altogether, but Jacques said that most people who came to help did so because she wasn’t just asking for cash.
“People said, ‘Do you know why we’re here? Because you’re here, working your butt off,’” Jacques recounted.
“People don’t want to help those who don’t help themselves,” Asha chimed in.
Their helpers really ran the gamut of age and experience, Jacques said, and included a memorable visit from 19 international students from George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill who were really interested in learning about the building process, though maybe didn’t know much before they came. Another time, two teenage boys from Belfast came to help, even though they had not swung a hammer before. They worked on shingling the house, and although their work was not perfect, it was a big help, Jacques said.
“One of the things I learned from this was letting go of control. You have to have a lot of gratitude,” Jacques said. “This is going to be like a quilt — a lot of parts put together. A lot of it is about treasuring the contributions.”
When asked what is their favorite part of the Itty Bitty House project, Asha and Aria did not hesitate.
“It’s ours,” Asha said.
“My room,” Aria added.
Jacques had a different answer.
“I like the friends that I’ve made. That’s my favorite part. I met an 80-year-old retired professor who’s like my BFF [best friend forever] now,” she said, smiling.
And even though some of her family members were scared that she asked strangers for help, Jacques found that the people she met were kind and eager to join in the old-fashioned work parties.
“I’m not saying there’s no such thing as danger — but only good things came out of this,” she said. “We met amazing, amazing people. The experience of meeting strangers who don’t mean you harm — that was amazing.”