AUBURN — With the push of button, Jen Turner slowly lowered herself, down past her wheelchair, until she was sitting on the floor.
"It's been four years since I've been able to do this," she said. "I'm sitting on the ground. I think I'll just stay here for a while."
She might have stayed for quite a long time, but duties, ribbon-cuttings and a houseful of guests needed attention. So, with the push of another button, she hoisted herself back up and sliced across the room to her waiting wheelchair.
The hoist that allowed her so much mobility Friday morning was just one of the nice features of her new house.
Turner, teams of volunteers who helped build the house, and federal, state and local officials who helped make it happen all came to the Oak Hill Road home Friday morning to applaud Turner and see what they'd accomplished.
The specially designed lift has two arms with pads that wrap around her upper body and metal supports that fit under her legs. A remote control she wears on a lanyard lets her control the lift, commanding it to carry her from her chair to various rooms around the house. The lift is attached to a ceiling track that will let her go from the shower, around the bathroom to her bedroom and out into her living room.
The rest of the house is similarly designed to help someone with limited mobility live independently. The shower is extra wide, with special drains built into the floor so a shower curtain isn't needed. Ramps lead up to the entrances and the kitchen stove-top features a special faucet so she can easily put pots of water on to boil. It also has an angled mirror so she can keep an eye on the pots.
"A lot of this, Jen really designed herself," said Tammy Nosek, a civil engineer in New York State who grew up in Rumford with Turner. Nosek helped spearhead the volunteer effort to build the house.
"(Turner) looked all over the Internet finding ideas for the house," Nosek said. "She had the ideas, and she'd get annoyed when we didn't get it. She'd say, 'Why are you even thinking about this?'"
The lift is only one of the special features, but it's a big one. It's the main reason Turner wanted her own home.
She has used a wheelchair since 1985 when a pulp truck hit her family's car, leaving her with a broken neck and vertebrae, no use of her legs and limited use of her arms and hands. She was 13.
Her situation worsened in 2006. After years of relying on her arms to wheel her chair and pull herself from room to room, she was left with severe tendon damage in her wrists. She needed an automated lifting system to be self-sufficient.
Turner has lived in the Auburn Housing Authority's Barker Mill Arms, but learned the building would not support the weight of that kind of lift. She was faced with the choice of moving into a nursing home or building a house of her own.
Turner began looking for a suitable property in 2008 and qualified for low-interest mortgages and grants. She eventually settled on the vacant city lot at 81 Oak Hill Road.
Volunteers have donated enough labor and supplies to cover the estimated $212,000 cost of building the house. Turner has received state Rural Development grants, city Community Development Block Grant allocations and Coastal Enterprise grants to pay for most of the work. A Section 8 voucher will pay most of her mortgage, according to city officials.
"It definitely costs less than a nursing home," said Reine Mynahan, Auburn's community development director.
"It costs less, and she's independent," Auburn Housing Authority Director Rick Whiting said.
Turner plans to move into the house in the next two weeks. It will be a dream come true, she said.
"'Thank you' seems like a small thing to say for such a grand endeavor," she said. "But this is the greatest gift ever — the gift to live independently and age in place versus nursing home care. My heart-felt appreciation for a community filled with compassion, love and generosity. Thank you."