ORLAND, Maine — What was once a mouse-infested garage with scraps of insulation hanging off the walls, a bare concrete floor and fluorescent lights clinging to the ceiling is now the home of Jennifer Jacques and her two daughters, Asha, 13, and Aria, 6.
When they first moved into the home in early March, the trio shared a bedroom, used a portable toilet and lived among power tools, extra insulation and sheetrock, Jacques said.
Ten months after they started rehabilitating the building, Jacques, her daughters and many helpers have transformed the 660-square-foot structure into a three-bedroom house, complete with a living room, bathroom and kitchen. The rooms are small, but Jacques has designed shelving that fits into the structure of the wall and a loft bedroom for Asha to maximize space.
Last summer, Jacques created a Facebook page, a website — with the help of a friend — and posted fliers around Blue Hill in the hope of soliciting help in the form of donated materials, labor, specific skill sets and moral support. She called the endeavor the Itty Bitty House Project, with the tagline “the little house that love built.”
Dozens of people have chipped in. At work parties, friends, acquaintances and strangers came for a few hours, a day or more to help clean out the building, install new insulation and siding, panel the roof and more. People from all over the state have donated appliances, materials, money and home improvement tips.
Others have simply given much needed encouragement, Jacques said.
Jacques said that one day, when she was struggling particularly hard to find motivation to keep working, she got a call, out of the blue, from an elderly woman in Wiscasset.
“[She] told me she was just calling to say she was proud of me, that the ‘Big Guy’ up there was looking out for me and that I should ‘Brace Up!’” Jacques recalled. “Her pep talk continues to inspire me.”
The process has not always been easy, and it’s certainly not complete.
“Carving out a home for myself in my corner of the world has been a little like giving birth,” Jacques said in an email to the Bangor Daily News, reflecting on the process.
“The discomfort is more mental and requires an unlimited supply of organization, determination and patience,” she said. “But in the end, something profound has happened in our lives, and there is this abiding peace and joy in this new beginning for our family.”
Before acquiring the property through the generosity of the previous owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, Jacques and her older daughter had bounced between 18 different rental homes and house-sitting opportunities since Asha was born. Jacques was motivated to find a secure, stable situation for her daughters.
Finding that permanency in the Orland house “frees me to look for sustainable work without so much panic about survival [and] helps the children on their educational paths,” she said.
Jacques works as a waitress at a restaurant in Blue Hill, making just over the federal poverty level per year. She is part of a third of Maine’s population that is considered “poor” or “near poor,” according to a 2012 study conducted by the Maine State Planning Office. That portion of the population struggles to pay for basic necessities such as food, shelter, heat and medical care, the study says.
Jacques said that the smallness of her house and the care she and her helpers took to insulate it will help keep her bills low.
“The affordability of this property means that I will not have to depend on the State, my parents, a man, or anyone but myself to provide for my children,” she said.
Though independence is what she’s reaching for, Jacques said that she also has learned about how to receive help graciously. She hopes to one day pay it forward.
“This project has reminded me how much we all need each other, and how — even though my goal is greater independence and sustainability — it is the community around us that really sustains us.”