March 18, 2010

Simple h.o.m.e., exquisite vision

SETH HARKNESS

— By

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Lucy Poulin, 68, started Homeworkers Organized for More Employment in Hancock County 38 years ago.

John Ewing

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Lucy Poulin, founder and director of Homeworkers Organized for More Employment, or h.o.m.e., comforts a worried young mother at the group’s soup kitchen in Orland. A former nun, Poulin is still often referred to as Sister Lucy.

John Ewing

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

ORLAND — At first glance, the rustic buildings scattered along a rural stretch of Route 1 east of Bucksport have little in common.

A soup kitchen is attached to a greenhouse, a few doors away from a working sawmill. Pottery, weaving and stained-glass studios are interspersed with a homeless shelter and a small wooden chapel. The only similarity among the buildings is their functional, rough-sawn appearance.

What might look like architectural confusion, though, is both the headquarters of an award-winning social service agency dedicated to fighting rural poverty and a complex, multifaceted community. The cohesion of the place lies not in its buildings but in the vision and beliefs of Lucy Poulin, founder and director of Homeworkers Organized for More Employment.

Poulin, 68, is a former nun still known as Sister Lucy to most. She and other members of her order started h.o.m.e. in 1970 as a craft store to provide local women with a place to sell their patchwork quilts. Thirty-seven years later, the organization has evolved into a provider of basic needs for many of the poorest people in Hancock County. The group runs five shelters around the county and has built 50 houses for low-income residents. Other programs provide people with firewood, food, medical care and low-cost auto repair.

More than a collection of social services, h.o.m.e. is an effort to build a cooperative community according to Christian principles, Poulin said.

''We try to be a welcoming community for people who are left out in our society,'' said Poulin. ''We help people heal and become who God is calling them to be.''

'WE'RE ALL ON AN EQUAL BASIS'

Poulin grew up in central Maine in a Catholic family as poor as many of those who now receive help at h.o.m.e. Her mother, a widow, raised 11 children on a farm that Poulin was running by the time she was a teenager.

Poulin held jobs in a paper mill and a chicken factory after high school. Hard, physical work was a fact of life, one that Poulin came to believe holds spiritual value. Everyone at h.o.m.e. is expected to help with the labor of running the place.

''If we're all out loading the truck with firewood, then we're all on an equal basis,'' she said. ''We found that doing manual labor breaks down divisions among us.''

Early on, Poulin began to show the entrepreneurial abilities that she later employed in her service to the poor. In her twenties, she started what she described as a successful equestrian center at her mother's farm in Fairfield Center.

Soon afterward, though, Poulin said she decided she wanted to spend more time praying and being alone with God. At age 26, she joined the Carmelites, a contemplative order of nuns dedicated to prayer and quiet reflection.

Her brother, Michael, took charge of the riding center. He earned a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona in equestrian competition and later moved the business to Florida, where he still operates it today.

A photograph of him with his Olympic teammates standing in crisp equestrian uniforms beside their competition horses hangs in Poulin's office. Nearby is another photo of a large draft horse pulling a sled.

''That's me right there with the work horse in the woods,'' Poulin said. ''I feel that life of a farmer is close to God. Our culture is so fractured and value-less, farming can bring you back to reality.''

A 'LOT OF SILENCE' FOR SEVEN YEARS

With the Carmelites, Poulin's life was dedicated to prayer and quiet reflection. She lived in a convent in Orland near the present site of h.o.m.e., where she and the other nuns prayed alone in their rooms for two hours a day. The nuns raised sheep and made shoes to support themselves, keeping quiet while they worked, to open their minds to God.

''There was a lot of silence,'' Poulin said of the seven years she spent with the order.

The rewards of Poulin's work have never been material. She said she believes those who dedicate their lives to helping the poor must live simply and acquire little. Poulin lost what few possessions she had collected in May, when the farmhouse she shared with nine other residents burned to the ground.

No one was hurt, but the occupants lost everything. Poulin, who has been sharing a camper trailer with several other residents during rebuilding, sounded apologetic when she said she misses her books and photos.

''I have all I need,'' she said. ''I have more than I need.''

Contacted in Florida, Poulin's younger brother, Michael, said he has sometimes been surprised by his sister's asceticism. He said she once admired a sports car that he had restored and, on impulse, he told her she could have it in exchange for the old one she was driving. The next time he went to visit her, though, the red Saab was nowhere to be seen.

Poulin asked his sister what had become of it.

''There was a family that needed it more than me'' was her reply, he said.

WORK AND CONTEMPLATION

One of Poulin's assignments while she belonged to the convent was to help local women find markets for their handiwork.

It was this project that evolved into h.o.m.e. and led to Poulin's leaving the convent to become the group's full-time director.

It is Poulin's job to concern herself with endless organizational details as well as the financial and personnel challenges of running a sprawling nonprofit.

It's a long way from the semi-cloistered life she lived as a nun, but those around her say she retains a spiritual focus.

''I think Lucy is still very much a contemplative,'' said Sister Marie Ahearn, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy who oversees h.o.m.e.'s shelter and has been with the organization for nearly 30 years.

''Contemplation and work go hand in hand,'' she said. ''The opportunity for meditation is here in the midst of all the work and the crisis.''

Poulin said the growth of h.o.m.e. was never planned, but simply a response to the many needs of people who came in search of help. Though Hancock County has many wealthy enclaves along the coast, it is also a place of deeply embedded rural poverty.

''You know how many people sleep in yellow school buses around here?'' said Carlene Parson, a staff member who runs the craft store and teaches piano lessons at h.o.m.e.

The people who arrive at h.o.m.e. might come from prisons or mental hospitals.

There are single mothers escaping abusive partners, runaway teenagers and undocumented immigrants. The door is never closed.

Poulin said the group attempts to live out Jesus' instructions to love your neighbor. ''Who is your neighbor?'' she said. ''Everyone.''

One of those who arrived at h.o.m.e. within the past year is 48-year-old Norman Bates. After his wife died a year before, Bates said his life fell apart, and he took to living by himself in a camper trailer in Exeter.

A friend recommended he come to h.o.m.e., where he soon moved into one of the group's transitional houses in Bucksport and found a job running a shingle mill.

''Then I started coming back to life,'' he said.

People who come to h.o.m.e. are seeking help, but most of those who stay say they do so for the satisfaction of helping others.

''When I went home at night I was tired, but I was tired for a good reason,'' said Jackie Burpee, who earned her high school equivalency degree at h.o.m.e. as a teenager and has worked there for nearly 30 years.

Poulin refers to h.o.m.e.'s commitment to keeping work and resources within the community as ''self-development economics.''

The group not only builds houses for low-income residents, for instance, but it also cuts the lumber for these homes at its own sawmill to provide some of these people with jobs. The organization does not hire professional managers but trains from within.

Poulin's management philosophy is decidedly egalitarian. Bringing in outside managers would create a hierarchy and displace local people, she said.

There is nothing tidy about h.o.m.e.. Most of the facilities feel thoroughly lived in and worn around the edges. Flooring might consist of carpet patched with duct tape; offices are cluttered and small.

Helping people, not decor, is the priority here. Poulin said there are always more needs than resources.

If she won the lottery, Poulin said, she'd pay down the nonprofit's bills, build more affordable houses and hire a dentist to come to h.o.m.e.

In the meantime, she has no plans other than to continue following where her faith leads her. For Poulin, that means staying right where she is.

Staff Writer Seth Harkness can be contacted at 282-8225 or at:

sharkness@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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During an afternoon lunch at the soup kitchen, Lucy Poulin chats with Richard Shubert, one of the homeless men staying at the shelter in Orland. The group has built 50 homes for low-income residents.

John Ewing

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, December 20, 2007...Sister Lucy Poulin established H.O.M.E., a shelter and community for the homeless, in 1970 and has steadily expanded its services to the homeless community. It has grown into a multifaceted community development corporation based on meeting people's basic needs for shelter, food, useful work, and health care.

John Ewing

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Wednesday, December 20, 2007...Robert Burpee tosses firewood he had been splitting into the back of a truck at the H.O.M.E. community in Orland.

John Ewing

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Eric Snow works in the sawmill owned by h.o.m.e., producing lumber to meet the group’s building needs – from framing for houses to wood for finished cabinets.

John Ewing

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The h.o.m.e. shelter and assistance organization started on a farm in Orland in 1970 as a place for local women to sell their patchwork quilts. It now provides basic needs for many of the poorest people in Hancock County, with five shelters around the county.

John Ewing

 


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