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A New Place to Call Home: Habitat for Humanity Volunteers Lend Sharon Family a Hand

  • Zack Cayer works on what will be his home in Sharon, Vt., on Aug. 13, 2018. Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity broke ground on the house this past spring. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Volunteers for Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity Becky Powell, of Enfield, N.H., left, John Vogel, of Wilder, Vt., and Lee Michaelides, of Wilder help build a habitat house in Sharon, Vt., on Aug., 13, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Breaking for lunch on the Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity home they are building in Sharon, Vt., on Aug. 13, 2018 are Jim Masland, construction manager left, Zack Cayer the home owner. Sitting are volunteers John Vogel, left, Lee Michaelides and Becky Powell. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2018

Sharon — Zack Cayer, 33, took a break from the house-building project off Sharon Meadows Road, wiping the sweat from his brow with one tattooed forearm as he recalled the day that changed his life.

It was in Texas, about six years ago. He’d stayed home from his job as a broadband installer to go to the hospital with his wife, Mindy Cayer, who was three months pregnant and due for her medical check up. 

“And the nurse, she stopped the conversation and directed (her words) to my wife,” Cayer recalled, sitting on a picnic bench surrounded by trees and volunteers in Habitat for Humanity T-shirts. “She said, ‘we need to bring him to the other side of the hospital. He’s not making any sense. He’s talking in circles. Something’s going on.’ ”

The nurse was spot on. Cayer had suffered a stroke earlier that day, and soon he’d lost the use of the right half of his body. 

The stroke was the latest and greatest in a long string of misfortunes and missteps for Cayer. Growing up in Rhode Island, he’d had a rough childhood, a toxic blend of unfortunate family circumstances, alcohol and poor decisions. As a teen, he moved in with his aunt and uncle in Barnard. When he and Mindy (then Mindy McKenna, of Bethel) got married in 2010, they moved to Texas, following the broadband installation work opportunity, which he’d heard about through a friend. 

Cayer still tears up when he talks about the stroke.

“I moved out there trying to make things better for us. I just worked myself right into the ground. And my choices up to that point didn’t help the situation,” he said.

In a single day, the stroke transformed him from a provider to a dependent. During the early stages of his recovery, he needed help to perform basic daily tasks, like eating and bathing. As soon as his physical rehab was far enough along, the new parents moved back to Barnard, where they had some family support, and began trying to rebuild their lives. Cayer gave up alcohol and eventually regained enough strength to re-enter the workforce, but life was a struggle. He made a decent enough wage at GW Plastics ($47,000 last year), and Mindy Cayer worked as a nanny, but they were pinned down by school debt, $60,000 in stroke-related medical bills and poor credit ratings. 

They tried to find the right path forward, moving from the basement of their aunt and uncle’s home to a small apartment rental, to a decrepit mobile home. They had a daughter, Henree, and another son, Wren. Cayer began an apprenticeship program to become certified as a master molder and automation technician at GW Plastics, but nothing seemed to be clicking for them — his truck, which he relied upon to get back and forth for work, was almost repossessed.

Workforce Housing

On Monday, Zack Cayer was working on the unfinished first floor of his family’s new home alongside Andrew Grimson, who became executive director of the Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity about a year ago. Soon after calling the crew in to share in a lunchtime pile of sandwiches stowed in a soft-walled cooler, Grimson said the group hopes to get the envelope on the Cayers’ new home completed in time to work through the winter.

“Once we get our lower level framed and the deck on, I think the framing will go reasonably fast,” he said. 

The three-bedroom home is being built to the Efficiency Vermont high performance standard, based on a tight envelope and thick insulation. Situated in a solar-ready clearing on a three-acre wooded slope, it will be heated and cooled by a single heat pump — the lack of a propane or oil bill matches the group’s goal of ensuring long-term affordability for the new homeowners.

A lack of access to housing, said Grimson, is the biggest single obstacle to security for people like the Cayers, whose hard work earns them an income that is too much for public benefits, but not enough to afford a mortgage.

“It’s not poor people anymore,” he said. “It’s middle income. It’s middle class. Which is scary.”

And having a new, energy-efficient home on the tax rolls also provides a benefit to society, particularly in the Upper Valley, where Grimson said there’s a 5,000 housing unit shortfall.

“If we get people living closer to where they work we cut down on traffic, we cut down on roads that have to be built, we cut down on parking congestion,” he said.

Other Habitat chapters focus on home repair, but in the Upper Valley, the main problem is that there aren’t enough houses to go around, which makes it more difficult for employers to staff up.

“We have had homeowners that have had masters degrees, because they couldn’t get the six-figure job but they’re still working hard,” Grimson said. “That’s why we call it workforce housing, getting that middle strata.” 

He said the group has built 35 homes over the past 30 years.

A Fair Start

The Cayers made a chance connection that eventually led them to Habitat for Humanity — Mindy Cayer started cat-sitting for Susan and Gerry Botha, who happen to sit on the Board of Directors of the UVHFH. As their friendship grew, the Bothas invited the Cayers to house-sit for them for an extended period of time, and told them they were ideal candidates to become homeowners under the Habitat program. 

Each home build project has its own set of problems to be solved, said state Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, who works as Habitat’s site supervisor.

“Last week was kind of extreme,” Masland said. “I came up to put the vapor barrier down ahead of the concrete and tape all the seams and there were two humongous trees down across the road. I had to get my chainsaw and cut them up, because otherwise the concrete would have shown up at 6 the next morning with no access, you know?”

Cayer said it’s difficult for him to come to the job site each week, knowing that nearly everyone else there is volunteering on his behalf.

“It’s really tough for me, because I can be stubborn, and a little too proud. … I don’t like feeling like I’m getting something for nothing.”

But the Cayers aren’t getting anything like a free ride. The UVHFH mostly facilitates a low-interest loan, and rouses volunteer labor (the Cayers are required to put in a total of 500 hours of sweat equity). Those factors bring the cost of a mortgage within reach.

Once the Bothas put them on the scent, the qualifying process was vigorous — they passed background checks, went through family interviews, and for nearly three years, they filled out endless forms and worked to clean up their credit rating — but finally, Mindy Cayer got the email telling them that they’d moved from being a potential candidate, to a chosen family. 

Once their home is complete, Habitat for Humanity will move onto its next project — it owns a lot neighboring the Cayers’ new homestead, he said, as well as plots in Wilder, White River Junction and Lebanon, all ready to house another family that he hopes will be as good prospects as the Cayers.

“This is going to be where they raise their kids, their grandkids,” he said. “This is where they’re going to see their great grandkids. This is their dream.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.