On Dec. 21, 2013, Franklin Elementary School teacher Jennifer Bessette, a mother of two, was dancing in the school hallway.

She had just received a voicemail to notify her that she and Arthur, now 16, and Sage, 12, had been accepted for a Habitat for Humanity home.

About two months later on Feb. 28, 2014, there was a snow day, and Jennifer and Sage were at their house on Van Buren Street in the Rattlesnake Valley.

Their rental faced the road on one side and the home of their neighbors, Fred Allendorf and Michel Colville, on another.

When an avalanche shot down Mount Jumbo, it flipped the Allendorf home, into the Bessettes' yard and massed a 50-foot wall of snow all the way up to Sage's bedroom window on the second floor.

"She had just been playing outside with the neighbor kids and came in for a snack," Jennifer said.

The snow forced the backdoor open.

Sage ran upstairs.

One of the neighbor kids Sage was playing with, Allendorf and Colville were buried in the slide, and Colville died days later from her injuries.

The Bessette family was evacuated. In the interim, they stayed with friends, rented an apartment and stayed with friends again.


About 11 months later on a cold weekday evening, Bessette was handed the keys to her new home on South Seventh Street West, about six blocks from Franklin.

"We are really ready to get settled and unpack our storage unit into our own home," Bessette said.

Sage described their hosts as "super-sweet," but shared space is shared space – there were a lot of bathroom lines.

"They're looking forward to taking ownership of their spaces, and be able to have a room they can do what they want with," Bessette said of her kids.

Sage has an upstairs bedroom and a handful of plans once they move in next month.

First she wants to paint the walls. Then there are the two closets, handy for someone who doodles and paints in watercolor and acrylic.

"One of them is really, really large, and it's going to be an art studio," she said.

They're a musical family, and have stringed instruments such as guitar, ukulele and banjo, so they'll have more space to play and practice.

Their new house has a proper yard – Bessette said the last one had patches of large rocks and dirt – and they plan to install a fence for Morgan, their chocolate Lab.


The house takes up half a lot that Habitat purchased several years ago.

The previous house had asbestos and was razed courtesy of the Missoula Fire Department.

Habitat divided the lot and built one home in 2013, then the Bessette house.

The nonprofit estimates that 300 volunteers and 5,500 hours went into its construction.

It's described as a "story-and-a-half" design that places two bedrooms upstairs and one on the ground floor.

A full kitchen, living room/dining room, and 1 3/4 bathrooms fill out the remaining 1,200 square feet.

Site supervisor Mike Sehorn said energy-efficient structural insulated panels on the exterior walls were used to comply with sustainability standards.

The home also meets accessibility standards by having one no-step entry and one accessible bathroom on the first floor.

Sehorn said it was built almost exclusively with new materials purchased from local outfits.

Thrivent Financial, a faith-based nonprofit investment firm with offices in Missoula, donated $77,000 toward the house, and members of seven local Lutheran churches contributed as well.

Missoula Habitat executive director Frankie McBurney Olson said Habitat has an open application period in the fall, and doesn't receive as many inquiries as you'd expect.

The families' finances and credit reports are vetted to determine whether they're ready for homeownership, Olson said.

Once the house is complete, they get a zero-interest mortgage, and payments are "no more than 30 percent of their income, and that includes the principal, the taxes and the insurance on the home," she said.


Per Habitat rules, the Bessette family contributed 250 hours of "sweat equity," which Bessette described as a valuable experience. The kids helped when they could – Sage did some cleaning for instance.

"I've been empowered by Mike and a group of amazing volunteers that not only teach us the skills but help us keep our humor when it gets tough," Bessette said at last week's dedication.

"Or when we don't want to come on another Saturday. It helps to know that the same smiling faces are going to be there. And they're happy to be there, and they're giving their time not only because somebody told them it was a good idea, but they have that inherent sense of altruism. It just gives you faith. It keeps you moving in those moments of – well, you all know those moments. I don't have to describe them."

After the keys were handed over, the Habitat board gave her the customary gift of a box of cleaning supplies and some trinkets made from scrap lumber by a Habitat worker: A winestopper, a sake cup and a pen.

Bessette told everyone that she'd done a little Habitat work while she was in AmeriCorps in the Flathead years ago.

It was a cold day in 2008, and she was trying to put up siding.

"I remember thinking that what I was doing in that moment was going to help protect the family from the elements that I was experiencing," she said. "I'd never dreamed that it would come full circle."

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