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Jim Kenyon: With a Little Help, Family Has a Home for the Holidays

  • Before dinner, Casey Maville spends time with his daughters Lillie, 10, and Serena ,7 months, at their home on Dec. 20, 2016. They recently moved into a Habitat for Humanity house in Orange, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Casey Maville with his fiancee Crystal Capron finish dinner with their daughters Lillie, 10, and Serena, 7 months old, in their home in Orange, Vt., on Dec. 20, 2016. They recently moved into a Habitat for Humanity house. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Casey Maville used to ride his bike to his job at Dan & Whit's when he was living in Dismas House in Hartford, Vt. following his release from prison last year. Maville admits that a few years ago this might not have been a job he could see himself doing, but having a family now makes all of the difference and he enjoys the work. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, December 24, 2016

Orange, Vt. — After his release from prison in early 2015, Casey Maville reached out on Facebook to his former girlfriend, the mother of his daughter. He wanted to get back together.

Crystal Capron had left the Upper Valley. She was making a new life in central Vermont for herself and 8-year-old Lillie. A life that didn’t involve Casey.

Since dropping out of high school in Randolph in 2006, when Lillie was born, Crystal had earned her diploma and completed a 12-month job training program. It led to her first decent-paying job — an office administrator for a small information technology company in East Montpelier.

Lillie was taking piano lessons and about to join the Girl Scouts. They’d been accepted into a federally subsidized apartment complex in Berlin. After starting out in an apartment where Lillie had the only bedroom and Crystal slept in the living room, they had graduated to a two-bedroom place.

Now Casey, whom they hadn’t seen in three years, wanted back into their lives.

“Should I write back or ignore him?” Crystal asked herself.

She didn’t respond right away. “I was hesitant,” she said. But Crystal came to realize that she needed to know — if only for Lillie’s sake — whether Casey had changed.

Was he still the same charming but irresponsible guy who couldn’t be counted on to go to the store to buy diapers when they ran out? Did he still prefer partying with friends to staying home with her and Lillie?

Had the 2½ years he’d spent in Vermont prisons for aggravated assault, after his probation was revoked because of drinking, brought Casey to his senses?

Crystal, now 27, had her doubts. “But he’s Lillie’s dad, and she needs a dad,” Crystal reasoned.

She went onto Facebook and started to type. “Let’s see what he wants,” she thought.

Like Crystal, Casey had dropped out of school. But unlike Crystal, he hadn’t turned his life around.

After growing up in Lebanon, he had bounced around towns on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley. He worked construction jobs and on horse farms. Nothing lasted.

“I started drinking real heavily when I was 20,” Casey told me the first time we talked in August 2015. “I lost all my family because of it. Then I really started drinking.”

Sue Buckholz, a Hartford attorney familiar with Casey’s background, remembered him as a “young guy out of control.”

“That’s pretty much it,” Casey said.

Buckholz met Casey, who turned 29 last week, before he went to prison. She had been assigned by the court system to represent Crystal in a noncriminal family matter. Crystal remains close to Buckholz, a mother figure she leans on for moral support and advice. Lillie calls her Nana.

Buckholz didn’t know that Casey was out of prison until she bumped into him at Hartford Dismas House, where she serves on the governing board. Dismas is a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and support in a group setting for former inmates at four locations in Vermont.

Dismas is picky about who moves into its 10-bedroom house in Hartford Village. Offenders are thoroughly vetted and interviewed face-to-face while still behind bars. It doesn’t take sex offenders.

Buckholz was pleased to see that Casey had shown enough promise for Dismas to give him a chance to get back on his feet.

“Sitting in jail for 2½ years with nothing to do, that’ll make you think,” Casey told me.

As I’ve written before, Vermont doesn’t make it easy for inmates released on furlough to find jobs. For example, they can’t leave the state, which takes them out of the running for unskilled jobs across the Connecticut at West Lebanon’s restaurants and stores.

After searching for a couple of weeks, Casey hadn’t landed a job. Ben Andrews, who was Dismas House’s manager until recently, suggested Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich.

Dan Fraser, the store’s co-owner, was the rare business owner who seemed open to hiring former inmates. Casey interviewed with Fraser, but didn’t immediately hear back.

So he called the store again.

“Can you work today?” Fraser asked.

“I’ll be there,” Casey said, confident that he could walk the 4 miles from Hartford Village to Norwich, if that’s what it took.

Or bike.

Since many recently released offenders don’t have money for a car or a valid driver’s license, Dismas collects used bikes for them to get around on. (I met Casey while writing about Dismas’ bike brigade last year.)

With Andrews’ help, Casey found an old Schwinn for $10. Andrews also connected him to the Listen Thrift Store in White River Junction. Casey wanted to buy a few back-to-school items for his daughter, but didn’t have the cash. In exchange for stocking shelves, he left with sweatshirts and a necklace for Lillie.

In his own quiet way, Casey was starting to make amends to the people he had let down over the years. Paula Maville, Lebanon’s interim city manager, was on the list. Maville is Casey’s stepmother.

When Casey was 10 or 11, she discovered a 1967 silver dollar was missing from her jewelry box. Her father had given her the coin as a girl to commemorate the year she was born.

Maville suspected Casey had swiped the silver dollar to buy candy at a neighborhood convenience store. He denied it.

“I told him that I couldn’t prove that he had taken it, but he should know that he had taken something of great sentimental value to me just to buy a couple packs of gum,” Maville said.

In the spring of 2015, with Mother’s Day approaching, Casey’s father, John, drove over to Dismas House to visit his son. Still on furlough, Casey was prohibited from visiting his family in Lebanon.

Before John Maville said goodbye, Casey handed him a 1967 silver dollar to give to his stepmother to replace the one he had stolen 15 years earlier.

“The fact that he remembered was what touched me,” Paula said. “It confirmed my feelings that Casey really is a caring person.

“Since his release, he hasn’t asked us for a thing. He’s wanted to do it on his own.”

After six months at Dismas, Casey was ready for the next step. He wanted a family.

But was Crystal ready?

“It took a lot of convincing for her to give him another chance,” Buckholz said. “She didn’t welcome him with open arms.”

Gradually, Crystal began to notice a difference. The way he stuck with the job at Dan & Whit’s, even if it took riding his bike in all kinds of weather to get there. Asking her to take his paychecks to put in the bank so they could start building a savings.

“He never would have done those things before,” Crystal told me. “He had definitely grown up a lot.”

From a financial standpoint, it made sense to keep her two-bedroom federally subsidized apartment in Berlin. Crystal applied to have Casey added to her lease agreement.

No go, she was informed.

“It’s really hard for people coming out of prison to find housing,” said Andrew Winter, executive director of the Twin Pines Housing Trust, the nonprofit housing developer and landlord that has been around the Upper Valley since 1990.

Although Twin Pines has no connections to the central Vermont affordable apartment complex where Crystal lived, Winter had a good idea what the couple was up against when I told him the story.

Federal regulations often prevent convicted felons from becoming tenants. Local housing officials have some discretion, but decision-makers are reluctant to take chances on felons who haven’t been out of prison for long, Winter said.

Having a felony — the Big F, as it’s known in the criminal justice world — is a “huge hurdle to get into affordable or public housing,” Winter said.

When told that Casey couldn’t move in with her and Lillie, Crystal had to choose: her affordable apartment or living together as a family.

It wasn’t a difficult choice.

Last spring, Crystal was driving Casey to work when he asked her to pull over at a church in Norwich.

Trying not to sound perturbed, she asked, “Why are we doing this? We’re almost at Dan & Whit’s.”

Casey insisted. He ran around to the driver’s side, opened the door, and got on one knee.

“Will you marry me?” he asked, sliding on her finger a ring his mother had given him.

The couple found an apartment in Barre for $950 a month, plus utilities. “It was more expensive and in a worse neighborhood,” Crystal said.

But they were a family. A family that Crystal wanted to grow. It was time for Lillie to have a younger sibling. In April, Crystal and Casey had a daughter, and Lillie had a sister.

They named her Serena.

The couple agreed that it would be best for Casey to stick to working weekends at Dan & Whit’s. That way, he could care for Serena during the week while Crystal kept her good job at the IT company.

The plan fell apart, however, shortly after Crystal returned to work from maternity leave. The company told her that she was no longer needed.

The next day, Crystal stopped at the McDonald’s in Barre. The restaurant was hiring counter workers for weekday shifts. She was overqualified and the pay wasn’t great, but it was a job.

This spring, Crystal read on an online community bulletin board that Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity was accepting applications from families looking for affordable housing.

The nonprofit organization planned to build a new house in East Montpelier and remodel a 20-year-old home in Orange that needed major renovations.

Crystal figured the competition would be stiff, and she was right. Habitat received 17 applications for the two houses.

“No way did I think we had a chance,” she said. “It felt like we were reaching for the stars.”

The stars got closer when Habitat’s selection committee contacted Crystal to set up an interview with her and Casey at their apartment.

“We’re not going to get it because of my record,” Casey warned Crystal, thinking back to what had happened with the federally subsidized apartment.

Casey’s record did raise red flags with the 10-member search committee, said Debbie Goodwin, Habitat’s executive director. “We looked at his background to determine if he presented a risk to his family and the neighborhood,” she said.

In the end, Casey’s past didn’t matter nearly as much to the committee as Crystal’s.

“Just hearing her story — having a child at 16, dropping out of school, getting her diploma — you could she was really determined,” Goodwin said. “Then she gave up her affordable housing so they could be together. This family deserved our help.”

Along with relying on volunteer laborers, Habitat requires families to contribute their share of “sweat equity.” This summer and fall, Crystal and Casey’s families spent hundreds of hours putting on a new roof, replacing siding and tearing off a dilapidated deck.

“My hours counted because I watched my sister,” said Lillie, who turned 10 last month.

The three-bedroom, one-bathroom house sits on a steep hill in Orange, a small town 10 miles north of Chelsea. The house has wood floors, fresh painted walls and new kitchen appliances. Crystal’s grandfather, Gary Capron, a retired carpenter, did the bulk of the interior work, including crafting a built-in bookcase for the living room.

“I never thought in a million years that I’d own my own home,” Crystal said.

When I visited 10 days ago, Casey had just brought in a freshly cut Christmas tree.

Serena was content in a kitchen highchair, picking up pieces of banana with her stubby fingers before jamming them into her mouth.

“She’s a good baby,” Casey said. “She doesn’t fuss.”

He’d know.

While Crystal works during the week, he’s at home, changing diapers and heating up breast milk kept in the freezer that Crystal has pumped during her work breaks at McDonald’s.

I watched Casey cradle Serena in his arms like she was a football while she drank warm milk from her bottle, looking up at her dad with bright blue eyes.

From the kitchen window, Casey spotted the school bus stopping on the highway below.

“Lillie’s home,” he said.

A few moments later, Lillie bounded through the front door. She tossed off her boots in the entryway. Adopting a surfer’s pose, she skidded across the kitchen’s wood floor in her stocking feet, stopping in time to give Serena’s arm an affectionate squeeze. Serena beamed.

“Let me show you what I bought,” Lillie said to her dad.

Orange Center School, the town’s K-8 elementary school, ran a holiday shop where students could buy inexpensive gifts. With the $20 bill that Casey had given her before getting on the bus that morning, Lillie purchased five Christmas presents, including a soft glow-in-the-dark ball for her sister.

Lillie chattered nonstop as she flittered about the house.

“How many lollipops have you had today?” Casey asked.

“Just one.”

Disappearing into her bedroom, Lillie returned with a trophy she received from playing youth soccer this fall. “I had never played a sport before,” she told me.

They’ve been in the house, which is assessed at $78,300 for property tax purposes, for a month. The 25-year, interest-free mortgage from Habitat costs them $550 a month, including property taxes and home insurance.

It’s a terrific deal. But with both of them earning not much above Vermont’s minimum wage, which increases to $9.60 an hour on Jan. 1, money is still tight. “We’re making just enough to get by,” Casey said.

When I tried calling him this week, Casey’s cellphone wasn’t working. “It got shut off,” he said. He hoped to pay the bill out of his next paycheck.

The noises coming from Crystal’s 2009 Subaru also have Casey worried that the car will soon need transmission work. The repair probably won’t be cheap.

Until then, they keep their driving to a minimum. He catches rides with family and friends for his weekend shifts at Dan & Whit’s, a 40-mile drive from Orange.

With the store open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Casey is working up to 30 hours on weekends.

This afternoon, Crystal plans to go with the girls to Lebanon to spend Christmas Eve with Casey’s family. He’s scheduled to work until Dan & Whit’s closes at 9 tonight. On Christmas morning, he’ll be back behind the deli counter until the doors shut at noon. It’s tough to turn down holiday pay.

A few weeks ago, Casey took an hour off on a Sunday to join Buckholz at a Hanover church where she was making a fundraising pitch to parishioners on Dismas’ behalf.

Sitting together in a pew before the meeting began, Buckholz, who was elected to the Vermont Legislature in November, thought back a half dozen years ago and everything Casey had been through.

“What are the chances that we’d be sitting in a church now?” she whispered. Casey tried to stifle a chuckle.

Like any young couple, Casey and Crystal have ups and downs, Buckholz said. But their story is not only one of perseverance. They are living proof of what’s possible when people in need are given a helping hand.

“We have behaved like human beings with this family,” said Buckholz, “and now they’re back together.”

Ready to share a hard-earned family Christmas.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.