Pam and Joe St. Pierre could be forgiven, as they sit in their drafty, leaky, moldy home on Dutch Gap Road in the small central Maine town of Chesterville, if they occasionally looked out their window and daydreamed of a brand-new house right there in their front yard, beckoning for them to come on in and take a load off.

Except it isn’t a dream.

The airtight, 800-square-foot structure is actually there.

They move in this week.

“I never thought in our lifetime that we’d live in a new house,” said Pam, 64, as the final finishing touches went on Friday.

“Show him the light,” Joe, 62, urged his wife of 43 years. Pam flipped a switch and, presto, an illuminated double-door closet inside what will soon be their new bedroom.

“Look at that,” said Joe, beaming.

Drive through rural Maine towns like this one, just south of Farmington, and you’ll have no trouble finding older couples like the St. Pierres.

Their twilight years have come knocking.

Their housing is, to be kind, substandard.

Day after day, season after season, they fight the good fight against those merciless forces of nature – from the black mold in the crawl space to the ice dams on the leaky roof to the squirrels who gnaw through the soffit boards and steal the damp insulation.

And then one day, a miracle happens.

“I call it a senior reboot,” said Bill Crandall, who manages the Housing and Energy Program for Western Maine Community Action. “Because these guys will start fresh with a new budget, new debt, and a new home. And they can age in place and be very comfortable doing so.”

Nearby, at the end of the dirt driveway, a banner extolled the many and varied entities that, in addition to Crandall’s agency, made it happen: Foster Career and Technical Education Center, John T. Gorman Foundation, Hammond Lumber, Mottram Architecture, Skowhegan Savings, Matthews Brothers Windows and Doors, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chretien’s Construction, Franklin County Government, Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, Maine Made, Sandy River Charitable Foundation and Maine Community Foundation (where, full disclosure, my wife works).

Put more simply, the community did it.

Joe and Pam St. Pierre sit on the steps of their old home in Chesterville. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

It all started two years ago when Pam and Joe, weary of putting out pans to catch the drips from the leaky roof and patching in new flooring where the soggy, particle-board underlayment had finally given way, showed up at Western Maine Community Action to ask about a low-interest loan to replace the roof.

Seeking help did not come easily for these two onetime millworkers – Pam spent more than 20 years stitching shoes at G.H. Bass & Co. in Wilton and then Franklin Shoe Co. in Farmington; Joe worked for three decades making toothpicks at Forster Manufacturing in Wilton.

The mills are long gone. As Crandall put it, “They didn’t leave their jobs. Their jobs left them.”

“We’ve worked very hard all our lives for everything we have,” said Pam, who now works part time at a medical call center in Farmington. Joe worked at various odd jobs until he was sidelined by cataracts, for which he recently underwent corrective surgery.

Yet they couldn’t get the loan. Their house since 1978 – half circa-1972 mobile home, half an addition Joe put on when their third child was born – fell short of federal standards for subsidized home-improvement financing. Way short.

In addition to the myriad structural problems, it took 10 cords of wood and a barrel of oil to heat the place.

And when the pipes froze, as they were fond of doing, Joe would unstack the cordwood piled up around the home, crawl under with a hair dryer, and then restack the wood so it wouldn’t get wet in the snow.

Then there were the constant leaks.

“You can stick a tarp up there and it works for a little while, but it don’t keep it all out,” said Joe, looking up at his soon-to-be-demolished roof.

As part of their assessment of the home, Crandall’s team conducted a “blower-door” test to see how airtight it was – or wasn’t.

“We found there were 21 air exchanges per hour,” Crandall said. “Meaning they heated the home 21 times in an hour.”

It all quickly shaped up as a “walk-away,” a worst-case scenario Crandall has encountered all too often in his eight years with Western Maine Community Action: People come looking for help, but their dwellings are so far gone they don’t qualify for further investment. So the agency has no choice but to walk away.

“We can’t help them with anything,” Crandall said. “And that doesn’t make any sense. We have to go on to someone who has a little better house structure than they do. Meanwhile, we’re leaving these folks stranded.”

Not so for the St. Pierres. Crandall had pretty much run out of options when a light bulb went on.

Working with Peter Thayer, his home repair technician, Crandall contacted George Chimenti, who teaches building construction for the Foster Career and Technical Education Center at nearby Mt. Blue High School.

Typically, the kids in the yearlong building class might build an off-campus garage for someone or construct something at the school – only to have the next year’s class dismantle it so they could reuse the wood and other materials.

Crandall’s proposal: How about having the kids built a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient house? A real home. For real people.

At the same time, he sat the St. Pierres down with a financial planner at the community action agency and hammered out a low-interest mortgage that would allow them to consolidate other debts, roll in taxes and insurance through an escrow account and, most important, have a real financial stake in the project.

“I said, ‘I don’t have a problem with that. We’ve paid for everything our entire lives. It ain’t going to kill us to pay for this, too,’ ” recalled Pam, who along with Joe, now receives Social Security retirement benefits.

Finally, Crandall applied his powers of persuasion to drive down the costs through foundation grants, donated and discounted materials and professionals willing to do work the kids couldn’t at generous rates or, in a couple of cases, for no money at all.

And so it began.

They poured the foundation on Nov. 29 – beyond late for starting a building in a place where they measure the snow in feet.

Then in January, the students showed up – two teams of 11 kids working three-hour shifts on alternating days.

They worked through a harsh winter, shoveling the heavy snow and chipping away at the ice as they raced to get the roof on.

They slogged through a nasty spring with rains seemingly sent from on high to test their mettle.

Then, with the end in sight, they faced the biggest test of all: One of their own, 17-year-year old Daniel Emery of Highland Plantation, died in a single-car accident on June 2.

He was one of a handful of kids experienced enough to work largely on his own. With high school graduation just weeks away, he’d already accepted a job offer from a heating contractor who’d worked on the project.

“A lot of life lessons for those kids this year,” said Crandall. “I mean working outdoors in the real world in the snow, rain and ice and then losing one of their peers. It was a tough road for them – and they came still with smiles and a positive attitude on this place. They really did.”

And their work was second to none.

The new house opens to a large, open kitchen-living room, flanked on the far side by the bedroom and a bathroom-utility room. A trapdoor leads down to a large cellar sealed top to bottom with heavy plastic and tape.

Joe and Pam St. Pierre in the bedroom of their new home. The house was built right on their property next to their old home, where they lived for over 40 years. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The electrical heat pump and energy recovery ventilation system will reduce the St. Pierres’ air exchange from 21 per hour in the old house to just over three per hour – and only after much of the heat is squeezed from the outgoing air.

And no more spongy floors – every square foot of living space is covered with lustrous wood laminate.

Ten cords of wood per season? Try one – assuming the new, high-efficiency wood stove is needed at all.

There’s still clutter to toss out from the old place, but not the family photos and other mementos that stop Pam in her tracks as she sifts through almost 40 years of a life that’s left her and Joe with remarkably few complaints.

And when the wrecker arrives sometime later this week, memories will pull heavily on the heartstrings – like the time 33 years ago when the snow stopped all of Chesterville in its tracks and for three days the St. Pierres and their three now-grown kids hosted a half-dozen relatives and friends seeking shelter from the storm.

They stoked the wood stove nonstop and, with the power out, played games by the light of kerosene lamps. They cooked huge meals on the propane gas stove.

“We had everyone spread out in sleeping bags and mattresses on the floor,” Pam recalled wistfully. “But we had a good time.”

Added Joe, “And we had a 24-cubic-foot freezer.”

Added Pam, “So nobody went hungry.”

Truth be told, though, they’re more than ready to see the old place come down. They plan to start a garden in its place – their new cellar will be perfect for storing the root crops.

Sometime next month, those who had a hand in building the house will gather there to celebrate their good work.

Late the other night, one of the students pulled into the driveway to show his girlfriend what he’d been laboring on the past six months.

“His house,” mused Joe with a smile. “That’s what he called it – his house.”

After things settle down, the St. Pierres will host a housewarming party of their own with family, friends and neighbors up and down Dutch Gap Road who have cheered them on every step of the way.

“I think the whole neighborhood is as excited as we are,” said Pam.

All because a community – in the broadest sense of the word – saw fit to help this aging couple stay put. It’s a model Crandall hopes to replicate all over Maine.

“It’s not something we’re used to,” said Pam. “But it is nice. It kind of makes me feel that all our hard work all these years has paid off.”

So, when the big day arrives, will Joe carry his bride over the threshold of their sparkling new abode?

Joe laughed out loud. Pam too.

“Yeah,” Pam chortled. “He carries me in and I’ll have to help him hobble out and take him to the chiropractor.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]