About 80 women with hardhats and hammers descended on northwest Charlotte’s Lakewood neighborhood Friday to frame and raise the outside walls on three new homes, an event that kicked off Habitat for Humanity Charlotte’s Women Build’s 25th anniversary.
It was the first day of what will be a two-month process in which some 1,000 female volunteers, most from partner companies and organizations, will provide the elbow grease to put needy families in their own homes.
Shaun Thomas, a volunteer coordinator for Wells Fargo, has worked on five such projects. Thomas said that she, too, benefits from the experience.
“It gives me an overwhelming sense that I’m living my blessings by being able to support the vision of another person,” she said.
The Women Build program, in which female volunteers build homes worldwide, was launched in the Queen CIty in 1991 after several female Habitat Charlotte staff members participated in a Builder Blitz, a process in which a home is raised in a day.
Susan Sewell, who was then executive director at Habitat Charlotte, was one of them.
“We were always looking for something else,” she explained. Sewell said she couldn’t sleep after fellow Habitat volunteers came up with the idea of an all-women volunteer homebuilding crew.
“It made sense,” she said, “because roughly 75 percent of our homeowners were single moms.”
Their first project, in NoDa, was dubbed “Look! Look! See Jane Build!” Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter pitched in, sledgehammer in hand.
Sewell said the response from volunteers, including the relatively few women in the construction industry at the time, was overwhelming. Those with more experience trained others in activities such as installing pipes and pouring concrete.
“People came out of the woodwork,” she said. “They said ‘I want to be involved in doing this.’”
But with a dearth of female building inspectors, the crew later settled for a male inspector donning a wig.
The program has taken off since 1991. There are now 2,400 Women Build homes in the United States and 30 foreign countries.
Charlotte is home to 18 of them, and will have five more in early July after the completion of the three launched in Lakewood on Friday and another two planned for the neighborhood.
The Women Build program, being a part of Habitat for Humanity, doesn’t require training for its volunteers. Each construction site has a supervisor who instructs volunteers on what to do.
“They’ll hand you a hammer and say, ‘Here’s how to use it,’” said Phil Prince, director of marketing and communications at Habitat Charlotte, adding that power tools are off limits to the inexperienced.
The women who volunteer come from all ages and backgrounds, said Ally Wilson, Habitat Charlotte’s assistant director of development for community relations.
She said one woman, now in her 80s and who volunteered for the first project 25 years ago, has plans to paint one of the new homes that will be built in Lakewood.
Nancy Chadwick, a financial consultant with MetLife, said she was working with Women Build on Friday for a couple of reasons.
“I want to learn more about framing and general construction,” she said. “And, I enjoy giving back to the community. It’s an opportunity for someone to have a place they can call their own.”
Jasmine McClure, a bus driver for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the single mother of an 8-year-old boy, is one such person.
She said she has put in some 200 hours of sweat equity with Habitat projects to help qualify for the house under construction on Jones Street. Recipients also must attend financial-management and home-maintenance training, and have the ability to repay their mortgages.
McClure said the prospect of owning a home was exciting. She was appreciative of the volunteers’ work, saying she has been sharing a two-bedroom apartment near Beatties Ford Road with family.
“This will make a big difference,” she said, affording her son a yard in which to play.
“It’s a way out,” she said. “Becoming a homeowner is the best.”
McClure stood side by side with her mother, Temekia McClure, who has lived in a Habitat home on nearby Halsey Street for eight years.
The elder McClure said her life has drastically changed since moving out of public housing.
“It’s much better,” she said. “We have our own space, but most of all we have security and safety.”
Habitat homes generally are about 1,200 to 1,300 square feet and cost about $110,000 to build, Wilson said. Along with corporate sponsorships and individual donations, the nonprofit funds its operating expenses and building projects through revenue from its ReStores and homeowner mortgage payments.
Sewell, meanwhile, said the time has gone by quickly since she helped launch Women Build 25 years ago.
“It seems like it was yesterday,” she said. “It was exciting and fun, with so many folks involved.”
The reason for the program’s success appears simple.
“It’s an opportunity for women to work side by side for a good cause,” she said.