Portland students build affordable homes in Westbrook, Freeport

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WESTBROOK — On a rainy Friday afternoon, more than a dozen builders scattered throughout three unfinished houses, painting boards and hanging sheet rock.

The three single-family homes with covered porches are being built along Breman Street, a small gravel road off Lincoln Street.

But the city’s newest neighborhood, taking shape within eye-shot of Rover Meadow Golf Course, isn’t being built by profit-seeking developers.

The builders are students from Portland’s Deering High School, part of a unique partnership between Habitat for Humanity, Americorps and the National Citizens Community Corps.

The partnership is one of 13 nationwide being funded with an $8,000 grant from Habitat for Humanity International and State Farm insurance, which has committed $1.1 million a year since becoming a corporate sponsor in 2007.

When finished by the end of this year, three families will have affordable housing. Two of the houses have been sold, while one remains on the market.

Stefanie Millette, the education and special project’s coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland, said one of the homes will be going to a single mother with three children, one of whom is autistic.

Millette said the floor plan of the home has been altered to accommodate the child’s special needs and the mother is completing the 250 hours of labor required for each able-bodied adult to live in the home.

“This is going to be a kid-friendly neighborhood, for sure,” said Millett, noting a six-person family with four kids had purchased another one the homes. “It will be great in the spring to see all of the kids running around.”

In addition to the three Westbrook houses, the students will build another three homes on South Street in Freeport before the school year is over.

Student James “Greg” Russo, 17, was busy replacing a piece of sheet rock on the ceiling of what would become an upstairs bedroom in one of the Westbrook homes.

Having worked with his father, who owns a commercial maintenance business, Russo was no stranger to the work.

He said he was participating in the program to fine-tune his skills and raise his grades to attend the Portland Arts and Technical High School next year.

“This is a good trade and something I want to do,” he said.

Two houses down, however, Paul Danh, who was struggling with a pesky sheet rock screw, wasn’t quite as sure hanging sheet rock is a profession he would like to pursue.

“You’ve got to make sure it’s straight up and down,” said Asa Gorman, an Americorps worker, whose voice barely cut through the Rolling Stones song on the stereo. “Plumb is the word for that.”

When Dahn was asked when he might use his new skills, the 18-year-old said “maybe fixing my own house.”

“At least, you didn’t have to spend all kinds of money to figure that out,” added Robyn Fink, Deering High School’s Jobs for Maine’s Graduate job specialist.

Fink said helping students figure out what they want to do after high school is one of Jobs for Maine’s Graduates’s goals. Raising grades and aspirations are others, she said.

“A lot of the skills are transferable,” Fink said. “They’re going to have to work with other people, give direction and take direction.”

The homes are the first Habitat for Humanity project in the state to use steel beams, rather than wood framing, Gorman said.

Americorps volunteer Marjorie Buie-Collard said the homes will be so well insulated that special air handling systems have been installed. The systems not only exchange air, but preheat the cool air coming into the house, she said. 

Student Mike Griffin, 18, was not only helping to build the house, but was filming the construction. Once the houses are built, Griffin said he will edit the footage into video that shows the student’s problem-solving skills as well as building skills.

“It’s going to show little clips of what people are doing, the problems we have and how we solve them,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements


Deering High School student James “Greg” Russo, 17, on Friday replaces dry wall on a ceiling on a Habitat for Humanity House being built in Westbrook.

Crews pause for a group photo on Breman Street in Westbrook, where Deering High School students are building three homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Deering High School student Paul Dahn, 18, on Friday hangs dry wall in a Habitat for Humanity home being built in Westbrook, while Americorps worker Marjorie Buie-Collard looks on.

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