NORTH ANSON — More than 25 years after returning from the Vietnam War, Robert Thompson discovered that exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange was at the root of some developing health problems.

No one in his family had ever had diabetes, but Thompson was diagnosed in 1998 and the disease led to nerve damage and muscle atrophy in his legs.

“I bent down to get a pencil and I couldn’t get back up,” Thompson, 66, recalled.

He was granted full disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 after also going through cancer and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thompson said his health has improved, but because of the medication he is on, he can’t be out in the sun for very long and has trouble with physical labor. So he was relieved to be able to sit under the shade of a large tent watching as a new porch was built on his home Tuesday.

The project was one of several organized by a group of 35 volunteers from a church youth group in Winchester, Va., spending the week in North Anson and New Portland. The group, who come from the First Presbyterian Church, drove 15 hours to come to Maine and repair the homes of people in those communities who can’t make the repairs themselves.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this. I think it’s really tremendous. It’s a blessing to us that these kids are here,” said Thompson.

Emily Kelley, the church’s youth group leader and the trip organizer, said the group does similar service projects every year, but this is their first time in Maine. They arrived Saturday and will be spending the week working on repairs to four homes in North Anson and two in New Portland, where they are camping outside the New Portland Presbyterian Church.

Their work on the six homes, which will take place every day with the exception of Wednesday, when they will spend a day at the coast, is part of a larger housing assistance project, Mission at the Eastward, said Kelley. The organization, which has offices in Canton and Farmington, accepts applications for those in need of housing repairs and pairs them with volunteer teams.

The teens do everything from weeding to cutting the grass, tearing up and putting in new floors and building patios and decks.

“Anything that the homeowners ask us to do we do,” said Kelley.

She said that in addition to helping people in the communities they visit, one of the goals of the trip is to encourage teens to become more self-sufficient.

That also means taking time to be less plugged in. One of the rules of the trip is that the teens can’t bring electronics.

“It’s a nice escape from day-to-day life,” said Emily Iden, 17. She said that at home she would probably be spending time with friends or family, but here she has spent the morning helping Thompson’s wife, Carrol Thompson, plant day lilies outside their home.

Thompson said that having the teens around has lifted his spirits. They eat lunch outside and swim in his pool.

“Not a lot of kids would do this. To see a whole bunch come from another state is really a blessing. It’s hard work,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
[email protected]

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