In Maine, Self-Help for Women

AS one of 11 children growing up in a poor farm family in Maine, Lucy Poulin knew first-hand the effects of poverty. Her mother was a widow, and the family's efforts to raise enough food and keep warm involved what Ms. Poulin calls "a constant struggle for survival."

That struggle forced Poulin and her siblings to work cooperatively on everything from gardening and carpentry to basic auto mechanics. "We learned that you could do anything - or at least you could attempt to do anything," she says.

Years later, those early experiences gave Poulin a particular empathy for the impoverished young mothers she met when she moved to Orland, Maine, a poor rural community of 2,000 on the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay. The women needed employment, but they couldn't take jobs because they had no child care.

Poulin devised a solution. The mothers could work at home - knitting sweaters and mittens, weaving, making pottery - then sell their handicrafts to tourists and others at a retail outlet. She established a nonprofit organization, Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (HOME), and the enterprise began.

Poulin soon discovered other needs. When some women needed education to improve the quality and efficiency of their work, HOME began literacy programs and a program offering high-school equivalency degrees. When Poulin discovered that some children needed attention, she opened a child-care center.

When she met homeless families, she opened the first of five shelters. She also began building the first of 20 houses through a land trust, Covenant Community. Building materials are supplied by a lumber mill and a shingle mill operated as part of the organization. Labor comes from volunteers. This week's crews include young adults from Wisconsin, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

TODAY, 22 years later, HOME's activities involve some 2,000 people each year. Poulin's list of home-based crafters includes 400 names. Her combined enterprises generate an estimated $600,000 a year.

Last month, these efforts won Poulin a Petra Foundation award, given annually by the Boston-based charitable organization to four people around the country who are making distinctive contributions to human rights.

Those achievements have been hard-won. Poulin has struggled with a lack of money and even a lack of respect from some local residents. Yet respect lies at the heart of her own philosophy.

"If you came [to HOME] as a homeless person, you'd be accepted into the community not as someone who needs to be taken care of, but as an equal," she explains. "We'd say, `Come help us help others.' "

One beneficiary of her endeavors, Gail Woodbridge, began as a teenager helping Poulin build houses. Now, as the mother of two young children, she works as a secretary in HOME's office. She rents one of the houses the organization built and hopes to buy it.

"If you work here you learn to help other people as you've been helped," Ms. Woodbridge says.

Of the program's success, Poulin says: "It's about a lot of people struggling together who have learned a few little secrets about how to help each other. They find there's always hope in any situation. I think everyone wants to be part of the solution."

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