Something akin to an old-fashioned barn-raising is taking place at a Charles County housing development on Bryans Road. Tommy and Vanessa Templeton are building their own home, and they have plenty of help.

On a recent evening, several of their future neighbors were lifting sections of wall into place while the retired parents of another neighbor pried two boards apart with a crowbar. About 10 people in all were postponing dinner and fighting off waves of heat to help piece together the Templetons' two-bedroom homestead. They show up to work here five days a week.

Vanessa, 47, and Tommy, 43, are becoming first-time homeowners through a national program administered locally by the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee and bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development office. The Self-Help Housing Program makes it possible for low-income families to buy homes with low-interest mortgages.

In return for the interest break, home buyers must do more than half of the construction work, not only for their own houses, but also for those of nine other families. The others helping the Templetons are participants in the same program and will live in the same neighborhood once all the houses are finished.

Vanessa Templeton had to overcome initial doubts. She has a bad knee, a bad hip and no particular fondness for hard physical labor. Together, she and Tommy must log 35 hours a week at the construction site. Doing that, she said, has made her a cheerleader for the program.

"The first morning we were out there, we were hauling a bunch of rocks, and it was heavy stuff," she said. "It was raining; it was muddy; it was cold. It is not easy to build a house, especially when you did not know how to hammer a hammer. But then you appreciate [the house] a lot more because it's something you did."

The Templetons will pay a monthly mortgage of about $350 for their new place at Brawners Estates -- significantly less than the $500 rent for their current home in Accokeek. The "sweat equity" that they contribute with their labor knocks $15,000 to $20,000 off the purchase price of the house, bringing it down to just under $92,000.

"It's the American dream to own a home. We are actually paying less, and it's ours!" said Vanessa as she watched Tommy at work. "We can do whatever we want to do. If I want to go out and plant me a garden, it's my house and I can do it. If I want to paint my house purple or have a satellite dish in my yard, I can do it. That's the great thing."

The Tri-County Community Action Committee has helped build 250 homes in the 20 years of its participation in the self-help program. The committee groups together 10 families who have yearly incomes of at least $16,000. Families work together to build all 10 houses -- each house takes about a month -- and no one can move in until the last house is completed. A professional construction manager oversees the work.

Tommy performs most of the couple's 35-hour-a-week construction duties after his full-time job as a groundskeeper at a golf course, where he earns $21,000 a year. Because of her injuries, Vanessa doesn't work. Tommy is cheerful about bearing the weight of two jobs, since that's what it takes to be a homeowner.

"The little man does need a home, too," he said.

Affordable housing has become more scarce in Southern Maryland even as development has skyrocketed in the past five years, said Debra Gass, the Self-Help Housing director at the Tri-County Action Committee.

"We have calls every day to our office of people needing housing, and we can't help them," Gass said. "At least one family in each [Self-Help Housing] group comes to us from substandard housing -- maybe they have no plumbing or electricity or maybe [no] indoor water."

Beyond the need for basic shelter, participants say that owning one's own property is a simple human joy. Jazma Speece, 47, has been living in her Brawners Estates home for nine months, and she gushes about it, even though she still battles the Lyme disease she contracted from a tick on the construction site.

"All my life, I would ride past houses and wonder why God didn't put me where I could own one myself," Speece said. "It seemed like I was never going to own one. But now my 14-year-old daughter has a home."

CAPTION: Tommy and Vanessa Templeton help build their Bryans Road home in exchange for a low-interest mortgage. Below, Vanessa defines "sweat equity."