LISBON — At 21, Dawson Martel is ready to learn how to live on his own.

Born with autism, it’s always been more difficult for him to achieve the same milestones as his peers.

But he’s never let that stop him before.

Described by many as a cheerful, hardworking person, Dawson Martel was an active member of various sports teams and student organizations before graduating from Lisbon High School with his peers in 2019. He moved on to attend Central Maine Community College with scholarships in hand, but he left soon after realizing it wasn’t the right fit for him.

Now, he works 30 hours per week between The Sausage Kitchen, Frank’s Restaurant and Pub, and The Green Ladle, where he was a student for two years.

“He jumps in, he helps out, he does anything he’s asked,” said Tony Austin, owner of Frank’s Restaurant and Pub.

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The next step, his parents say, is learning to live independently.

Dawson Martel agrees. He said he doesn’t want to live with his parents forever and hopes to get his own place “because I need somewhere to be on my own.”

Dawson Martel looks out the window of what will be his apartment on April 29. The unit is attached to his parents home in Lisbon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Kerry-Ann and Aaron Martel are building an attached two-car garage with a second-floor apartment for their son to move into. Since construction started five months ago, Dawson Martel has worked alongside his parents, friends and contractors, taking an active role in building his new home.

The Martels are no strangers to the challenges of home construction. From 2003 to 2004, Kerry-Ann and Aaron Martel participated in Community Concepts’ self-help homeownership program, working with six other families to build seven homes, including their own.

Now, they want their son to have a place for himself with his support system close at hand.

“The goal with this is to ensure that when I can no longer offer assistance to him, we have taught him how to live on his own and that he needs very minimal support, if any,” Aaron Martel said. “This is the best way that we’ve come up with.”

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He acknowledged that they could have found an assisted living program for people with special needs instead.

“Those are great programs, but for us, for our family, that just wasn’t what we were comfortable with,” he said. “We know that this route is really the best thing for him.”

Bridges to Success case manager Devin Flynn said Dawson Martel is an inspiration to others.

“You don’t see a lot of folks who have autism, who have needs who are working three jobs and volunteering, and, I mean, he’s got a full schedule,” Flynn said.

Jill Carson, a local electrician, and Dawson Martel, nail an electrical box onto a wall stud of his apartment in Lisbon on April 29. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“I’m not even sure how much Dawson is aware, but he’s spreading awareness by like just doing this stuff,” he added. “As far as disability services and stuff, I feel like people are very predisposed to thinking they have such a low ceiling or their options are limited. He (is) just a perfect example, like, just because you may have to work a little harder doesn’t mean that you can’t do what you want to do.”

Despite an extensive support network, it’s been a difficult, costly road.

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Two years ago, Aaron Martel said the entire construction was priced at $110,000. After refinancing their home, they’ve put $130,000 into the project and have hit a standstill.

The exterior framing is done, along with some interior work, but despite downsizing initial plans and cutting costs, they’ve run out of funds.

From here on out, Dawson Martel and his father will work to finish the two-bedroom apartment themselves.

“It’s important to have Dawson involved because how does Dawson know he doesn’t want to be an electrician?” Aaron Martel said. “How does Dawson know he doesn’t want to be a plumber? A contractor? You know, he might find that he likes working with his hands.”

Aaron Martel estimated it will take several years before they can complete the apartment.

Dawson Martel, front center, is surrounded by his parents and friends and support network in his half-built apartment in Lisbon on April 29. Flanking him are his parents, Kerry Ann and Aaron Martel. Kneeling in the middle is Katie Luce, director of development and community engagement at Habitat for Humanity in Topsham. In back, from left, are, Margaret Tibbetts, friend and fundraising organizer; Devin Flynn, Bridge to Success case manager; Jill Carson, electrician; and Tony Austin, owner of Frank’s Restaurant and Pub where Dawson works one of his three jobs. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Twice a month, Dawson Martel and his mom volunteer at the ReStore in Topsham, a second-hand store for furniture and construction supplies run by Habitat for Humanity. Donated items are 50% off at the ReStore, but volunteers receive an extra 25%.

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It’s yet another method the Martels have found to cut costs.

“Nobody deserves a space of their own, like Dawson does,” said Topsham Habitat for Humanity Director of Development and Community Engagement Katie Luce. “He is such a hard worker. He goes out of his way to help other people … Dawson deserves a home, and I want to do anything I can to help.”

Two family friends, Margaret Tibbetts and Annette Wilson, set up a GoFundMe to help them raise the money to finish the apartment for Dawson Martel. As of Monday, they’ve collected just under $1,000.

“They are always the first people when you need help to step up and say, what do you need, what can I do for you?” Tibbetts said.

She recalled a time when she needed help jump-starting her car late one night after picking up her daughter from work. Aaron Martel, in his pajamas, was the one who came to her aid.

“They’re not the ones that asked for help,” Tibbetts explained. “We kind of said, ‘well, let’s see what we can do. How can we help you with this?’ So to be able to do something to give back to them for everything they’ve done for the community, for their kid, for my kids…” she said, trailing off.

The Martels aren’t picky. They said they would be happy to receive leftover construction supplies, such as leftover tiles, or used items, like kitchen cabinets, once the interior is complete.

Dawson Martel said he’s excited to one day finish the apartment. But he’s disappointed that is was not ready on May 4, widely recognized as Star Wars Day.

As an avid fan, he dreams of living in a Star Wars-themed apartment. He plans to continue working with his parents to finish the construction until that dream can become a reality.


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