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On a quiet residential street in Northfield sits a neat cottage, accented with a cheery red door and bounded by a quintessential white picket fence.

But it's what the house represents that is eye-opening. It took a community effort, involving more than 100 volunteers and 2,500 hours over a 10-month period last year, to make the once-dilapidated house a home for a family of five aspiring to the American dream.

"We call it the Starfish House because it reminded us of the fable about a young boy who chose to save a single beached starfish, knowing he couldn't save all the starfish but could make a difference to one," said Bob Thacker, who spearheaded the project with his wife, Karen Cherewatuk.

"Helping every family in need find a comfortable house they can afford to buy might not be within our grasp, but we managed to do it for one."

The Northfield couple took a leap of faith and bought the 1,195-square-foot house with their own funds in December 2022.

Their motivation? To see an ethnic minority family that Thacker and Cherewatuk had befriended move from the substandard two-bedroom apartment where they were raising three children and achieve their long-term goal of home ownership through a contract-for-deed purchase.

"Their oldest child, a son who's now 20, never had his own room and had only a couch to sleep on," said Thacker, 76. "And he used cardboard boxes to hold his clothes."

Not everyone was initially optimistic about the rehab potential of the rundown 1890s house.

"When Bob first showed it to me, I looked at him like, 'What? Are you kidding me? This is the house?'" said Kathy Schuurman, a Northfield affordable housing activist who ultimately bought into the project in a big way.

"It needed a total gut job. But you see it now and it's this shining star."

Serendipity and elbow grease

Starfish House had been empty — "except for all the squirrels, mice and bats," Thacker said — for three years when Thacker, a retired marketing executive with an artistic eye and just enough home renovation experience to make him confident, began tackling its transformation.

"The neighborhood squirrels thought it was the Hilton," said retired optometrist and Starfish project manager Pat O'Neill. "When we removed the back of the fireplace, we collected about 10 garbage pails full of walnuts that slid out from their hiding spot."

Putting his considerable powers of persuasion to work, Thacker recruited friends, neighbors and area contractors to aid in the work, which required demolition to the studs. The resulting debris filled eight dumpsters. Cleaning and reconstruction followed.

"Physically, I couldn't do that much, so I was constantly convincing people that rebuilding a rafter was a fun thing and they should do it, too,"he said.

As word spread, plumbers, electricians and other construction specialists offered their services, many of them talked into doing so either for free or at reduced rates.

"With his background in fundraising for nonprofits, Bob is not afraid to ask people for things," Cherewatuk said. "Almost everyone we asked said yes. Whether they spent a half-day cleaning, delivered lunch for other workers, painted for a couple hours, donated money or were all-in almost every day doing hard construction, people were willing to help."

Could this type of effort be successful in other communities?

"I've wondered that," said Thacker. "Maybe. Northfield happens to be blessed with many talented retired or semiretired people who have amazing skills they jumped at the chance to use again.

"And there's a small-town sense of looking out for each other here."

Schuurman, a retired St. Olaf College staff member who is a Northfield Affordable Housing Task Force committee member and co-chair of Northfield for Sustainable Housing Environment and Development, served as a project spokesperson and behind-the-scenes coordinator, and was one of dozens who donated financially to bring the house back to life.

"At every turn, when Karen and I felt like we were facing a wall, some item or person would miraculously appear," said Thacker. "With Starfish House, it was one serendipitous moment after another."

Affordable housing crisis

A 2020 study revealed that 41% of Northfield households earned less than $50,000 annually, and only 16% of owner-occupied houses would be affordable for those in that wage bracket.

"It's nearly impossible for lower-income working families to afford to break into the local housing market," said Schuurman.

"A coalition of organizations meets monthly to discuss what's going on in housing and how to help the Northfield area solve its housing issues."

Dayna Norvold, executive director of Rice County Habitat for Humanity, is part of that coalition. In 2023, Norvold oversaw the construction of five Habitat homes but confirms the need for more; 10 are scheduled to be finished this year.

"Before this, we've had people suggest we do home repair and major rehab [in addition to new construction], but it takes a uniquely skilled group of volunteers to make that happen, and we'd never had someone approach us with the finances and energy Karen and Bob brought to the Starfish project," Norvold said.

"We were impressed with their ability to successfully rehab a house, and to do it for about 25% less money than it costs us to build a new one."

And, similar to the Habitat model, the Starfish House purchasers contributed hundreds of hours of sweat equity to the project.

Because of Starfish House's success, Norvold added an official Starfish Committee to Rice County Habitat for Humanity's organization.

"They bring good energy and excitement and enthusiastic volunteers, and Habitat brings the infrastructure," said Norvold. "Tying this in with Habitat has the benefit of making the program more long-lasting and sustainable."

Cherewatuk is thrilled to have the Habitat connection.

"To hear at the end of our process, 'We watched you, this worked, let's work together on the next one,' brought great joy to the Starfish team," she said.

"This doesn't end with us and isn't just about what we did for one family; it's a new initiative at Habitat that will outlive us and our efforts."

Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield writer.