Bloomington women build legacy

By Jennifer Engle Garrett

July 13, 2001

Bloomington women answered the call for volunteers for Habitat for Humanity’s Women’s Building a Legacy. The sawdust flew as they donned hardhats and toolbelts, grabbed the hammers, saws and screwdrivers and went to work. Only the foundation was poured ahead of time, and the house was otherwise built entirely in one week and entirely by women.

An all-women crew certainly isn’t the norm for Habitat or for commercial construction, where women are often present in limited numbers, if at all. So for one week the male-dominated construction industry was turned on its head. “The idea,” says Habitat worksite coordinator Josh Girvin, “is to have the women do the building and the men do the cooking.” Actually, he
explains, the women can help in any way they like, but men must stay on the sidelines providing food or making runs to the lumber yard or hardware store.

Girvin explains that the Women’s Build program is a unique opportunity for women to be a part of this experience, “to learn about construction ... to work with other women and learn together.”

Kerry Thomson, Monroe County Habitat’s director of ministry, explains that the construction-based mission and focus of the organization often discourages some women from volunteering. “We know that many women find the job site intimidating,” Thomson says. Since Habitat relies on volunteers for the bulk of their work, removing barriers to participation is critical for the organization’s success.

The Women’s Build program is one effort to introduce women to Habitat volunteering. The “intimidation-free site” is designed to ease any discomfort that some women might experience when swinging hammers side by side with men. The idea is to enable interested volunteers to participate, gain training and experience and then return for other volunteer projects.

“Everyone is welcome at Habitat. From a long-term perspective for our organization, the women’s build is really an effort of inclusion, not exclusion,” Thomson explains.

The unique atmosphere did attract new volunteers, according to volunteer co-chair Gwen Jones, who participated with Habitat specifically because of the Women’s Build project. As she sized up the project and the number of volunteers needed to pull it off, Jones was concerned that she and her co-chair might not be able to recruit enough workers for the job. But Habitat employers assured her that “build it and they will come,” Jones said. And come they did. The volunteer roster was filled three days before the build was scheduled to begin.

Working with Habitat truly resonates with Jones who grew up “practically on welfare.” She adds that “I was 18-years-old before I had an inside bathroom.” Jones knows first-hand how hard it can be to get on your feet. The Habitat homeowners remind Jones of herself as she struggled to make ends meet as a single parent. “I was always asking myself what can I do to get out of this apartment? I would have loved to have been able to have a home like this.”

Home ownership for Jones didn’t come until she was married. Now stable and a business owner, Jones is happy to contribute to Habitat with her time and money. She is providing custom window treatments for the interior of the home, and she is helping with the construction. “It’s kind of scary — at least two of the days I’m going to be on the roof.”

But the real excitement, according to Jones, is when the house is finished, when “we see the finished product and we see all of the women who come together to make this happen. This really means a lot to me.”

It also means a lot to homeowner Brenda Hawkins, who will soon move into her new Habitat home with her son, Michael. The road to home ownership began many months ago when Hawkins read about Habitat in the newspaper. A friend suggested that she call for more information. Hawkins attended a meeting at a local church and was interested right away. “It’s worth volunteering,” she says. “Why pay rent when you can build your own house and then own it.” So Hawkins applied and was accepted into the program.
Habitat homeowners are called Partner Families, and they don’t get their houses for free. They must provide proof of income so that they can make payments on their home. The mortgage is held by Habitat, yet the organization does not make any profit on the home nor do they charge interest. Partner families also must live in Monroe County (or a neighboring county) for one year, demonstrate need for the services, and be willing to contribute 250 hours of “sweat equity” by volunteering with Habitat doing anything from office work to construction.

Although Hawkins had never been on a construction site before becoming involved with Habitat, she was eager to participate. Her inexperience did not deter her at all. “If you want to learn, you can learn,” she says. “And I wanted to learn.”

Thomson and others on the site attest to Hawkins’ enthusiasm. “Brenda has been the hardest worker out here all week.”

Hawkins doesn’t deny that she is thrilled about her new home and participating in its construction. “It’s exciting ... I love it ... I’ve made new friends. I think it is a neat thing to do,” she says. “Even when I’m done, I want to come back and help.”

The experience, she adds, has not only earned her a home, it has also developed her confidence. “It makes me feel like a person. When you are renting, nothing belongs to you. It [home ownership] is just a whole different thing.”

Thomson, too, stresses that Habitat is “much more than houses.” Habitat homes improve neighborhoods and increase property values as well as the tax base. “Habitat changes lives on an individual and community level.” With the stability of home ownership, parents can focus their energies on increasing income and on nurturing their children, who are particularly vulnerable when in temporary housing situations.

This is the 37th home that Habitat has built in Bloomington since 1988 when the affiliate was established. This year’s schedule includes seven houses; next year’s increases to 10. This was Monroe County’s first all-women built Habitat home. The Women’s Build is a nation wide program that is erecting 100 homes in locations throughout the country over 18 months. All of the Women’s Build homes are built from top to bottom by women volunteers. Habitat for Humanity International, the world’s largest housing organization and the one to which local affiliates belong, turns 25 this year.

Indianapolis will serve as “global capital” and will host the silver anniversary celebration this September. Long-time Habitat supporter and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will attend the festivities. For more information about Habitat housing and volunteering, call (812) 331-4069.