Susan Stavropoulos looked on with interest as her neighbors Linda Ewing and Tom Adams slid the first of two new storm windows into place in her living room.

While her old house on Chebeague Island has many places where heat can escape, she’s testing these new windows here in the den first, to see how big a difference they can make.

Susan has lived full-time on Chebeague for several years now, and the matter of keeping her house warm has become even more important, as it is for so many island residents.

Oil prices skyrocketed this past summer, but since then have come crashing back down, leaving many island residents to wonder what they’ll do as winter rolls in, should heating oil become expensive again. Either way, Chebeague residents are planning to be ready for whatever mother nature and the economy decide to throw at them. 

The new storm windows are part of a new weatherization program sponsored by the Chebeague United Methodist Church, said Lola Armstrong, a member of the church’s administrative council. The church had offered financial assistance to residents in previous years, through collections and donations.

The Fuel Assistance Fund, founded by islander Virginia “Ginny” Ballard back in 2005, provides assistance for Chebeaguers to pay for heating fuel.  Residents and others make donations into the fund during the fall in preparation for the winter, and pay local distributers for the fuel.

However, the Samaritan fund only addressed the matter of the fuel and not weatherizing, something needed for older homes. While businesses now offer weatherizing materials and packages, these are often expensive and are difficult to incorporate into existing homes. A less expensive alternative was needed.

“We’ve done that in the past, and probably helped a dozen families stay in their homes through the winter, but this year it looked like it would be even worse,” said Armstrong. “I felt it was wrong to give fuel assistance if we didn’t help them weatherize their homes.”

These worries are echoed on the church web site, which as of November has a page dedicated to weatherization assistance.

Armstrong approached islander Frank Durgin, who served as associate director of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at MIT, he worked on the project to fix the windows of the John Hancock Tower, which had a tendency to fall onto the sidewalk during high winds. When he lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse in Belmont, Mass, Durgin came up with a design for storm windows that could be used on the inside of the house. Durgin had made 36 of these storm windows for just over $200 and his heating bills went from 3,000 to 1,200 gallons per-year.

Members of the church decided to use the parish house as a test bed for these windows, with Durgin leading the workshop and offering guidance to his neighbors.

“I’m enjoying doing this, and at the same time I hope I’m being very useful to the island as I’m doing this, and that the people who I’m helping will have far less heating bills,” Durgin said.

Residents and church members volunteer to build the windows. Each window costs about $7 and is paid for from a special collection from the church. The windows are constructed from shrink wrap plastic, wood slats, and double-sided tape, all easily acquired from most home repair stores. About 70 windows were made by mid-November, with requests for more coming in.

Tom Adams and Linda Ewing are two part-time Chebeague residents that have been helping with building and installing the storm windows.  Unlike most part-timers, they prefer to come up to the island during the winter. “We love the winter on Chebeague.  It’s when the community really becomes a community,” said Adams.

After the construction of windows finished for the day, Adams and Ewing packed two of the larger ones into their jeep, and drove over to Susan Stavropoulos’ house to install them.  Unfortunately, they soon encountered a slight problem.

Stavropoulos’ house has shifted and settled due to its age, so sliding the storm windows into place was a difficult process.  After a few minutes of gentle coaxing by the business end of a hammer, the storm windows were finally in place.

Stavropoulos has come to this house on Chebeague since she was a little girl, and knows how cold it can get and how important heat-saving tricks can be.  “We came up here years ago, out of season.  Now if you open a house during the winter its cold no matter what you do,” she said.

For Adams, it is during challenging times like these when Chebeague Island shows its strength.  “It’s a community that, more so in the sense of togetherness all year round but especially so in the wintertime when people really pull together.”

Marc LeBourdais is a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland.