UPDATE: Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build Week has been officially rescheduled for July 13-17, 2020.
Habitat for Humanity South Hampton Roads has embraced the old saying, “The show must go on”—even if they’re not entirely sure when that show will open.
Their stage: Land in the South Norfolk community of Chesapeake. Their actors: Teams of 12 female employees from Coastal Virginia businesses. The play: “Women Build Week.” The plot: Businesses sponsor building teams with a donation of funds and workers; Habitat for Humanity secures discounted supplies and professional tradespeople; all join together in shifts to build an affordable house and then celebrate someone purchasing the new home.
Coastal Virginia’s first Women Build Week was originally scheduled for June 8-13, but following Governor Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order, organizers remain flexible.
“We’re being hopeful,” shares Rainham Rowe, program director, Habitat for Humanity South Hampton Roads. “The build will happen, even if we have to put it out a few weeks or so.”
Why push forward? “The need for affordable housing doesn’t go away.” explains Rowe. “It increases in a down economy, like the one we’re facing because of the coronavirus.”
An added benefit: After months of working remotely or sporadically face to face, six feet apart, of course, employees will welcome the chance to gather and do good. Rowe promises to guide volunteers through any fears of blueprints and power tools. She’s always been handy, describing herself as the “the son my dad never had.” For almost 13 years, she’s worked in construction. For over eight years, she flipped houses for a small property management company. During the last four, she has helped Habitat for Humanity raise funds and build homes.
“I understand people being nervous on a construction site. It happened to me the first time. I felt intimidated,” Rowe says. “But I’ll be there and so will experienced workers. I encourage women to do things they think they can’t do. Ninety-nine percent of the time, their reaction is ‘Oh my God. That’s cool. I want to do that again.’”
Step by Step, to Home Sweet Home
Rowe remembers coaxing Rebecca Skeens, a teacher in Chesapeake, onto scaffolding. In early spring 2018, Skeens’ Habitat for Humanity house was being rehabbed in the Portlock neighborhood of Chesapeake. Her parents lived a mile away. She had accidentally discovered Habitat for Humanity while driving to work one day.
“When I saw a ‘Habitat for Humanity rehab’ sign in front of a house being redone, I was curious to find out more,” explains Skeens. “My young daughter and I had been living with my parents for six years. For one of those years, my two brothers and their families were living there, too. We had 13 of us in a small, three-bedroom home.”
After researching Habitat for Humanity online, Skeens applied by mail to purchase a home. She met with the Habitat team in their Norfolk office a few weeks later. They talked about houses — new builds and rehabs — and various locations. Soon, they found a house worthy of rehab about a mile from Skeens’ parents’ place.
Nearly every Saturday for five months, Skeens morphed from teacher to construction assistant. She hung siding. She positioned soffit. She caulked. Volunteers from businesses, churches and the Navy did the same. “Red hats,” seasoned Habitat for Humanity volunteers, were always nearby. At the start, Skeens and the crew had taken the house down to its studs. In March 2018, they celebrated a three-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot home with plentiful storage.
“I love it,” says Skeens. Inside, above her front door, hangs a one and a half-foot key signed by each volunteer. Skeens estimates 100 people built her home.
“They did so much,” she says. “They even went beyond helping with construction. A group from a bank asked me if I needed anything for the house. When I said I was looking for a dresser for my daughter, they told me to pick out one from Ikea, and they’d purchase it. I also received a basket filled with cleaning supplies and blankets. The compassion and comradery from the volunteers were amazing. I missed it when we were done.”
But not to worry: Skeens continues laboring physically, but in garden construction instead of rehab. One of the best parts of having a house, she says, is the land surrounding it.
“We have dirt of our own to play with,” Skeens emphasizes. “My daughter and I love gardening. Right now, I’m planning our beds for the spring.”
Gardening in a big way wouldn’t have been possible anywhere other than a house. It’s one of the reasons Skeens is glad she pursued home ownership. Another: Her monthly mortgage payment is less than rents she saw advertised.
“I couldn’t get even a two-bedroom apartment for the amount of my mortgage,” she says.
Sponsoring the Future
Habitat for Humanity Program Director Rowe explains how a home can cost less than an apartment: Most houses Habitat builds or rehabs are compact, from 1,000 to 1,400 square feet, and volunteers complete eighty-five percent of the construction.
Corporate sponsors, like the ones being solicited for Women Build Week, pay for supplies and subcontractors for specialized work. Families then purchase the house at cost. (The Habitat for Humanity staff’s salaries are paid by sales at ReStore, two thrift stores managed by Habitat. Unfortunately, the stores are closed to comply with stay-at-home orders. Fifteen Habitat staffers are unemployed as a result; others, including Rowe, are reduced to part-time hours and part-time pay. The Habitat executive director continues to work with no salary.)
The fundraising goal for Women Build Week is $80,000. Employees of any gender of women-owned businesses and female-centric businesses are welcome. Individual sponsorships are $150 and team sponsorships $2,500. Other sponsorship levels are available, and shifts will run for four hours, with two shifts daily.
“We overlap shifts so volunteers can break for lunch and meet each other,” says Rowe.
She’s looking forward to seeing mostly female smiles in July. She’s only twice experienced women construction crews briefly – once in 2017, when a grant from a building supply store sponsored work on a home foundation, and once earlier this year on a two-day project in Suffolk. Several women from Coastal Virginia Magazine, a Women Build Week media sponsor, swung hammers and shot nail guns during the Suffolk project. They’ll do so again in July, when the build will embrace the concept of women helping women:
“A single mom leads the family we’ve chosen to buy the home we’ll construct during Women Build Week,” Rowe shares. “It’ll be a two-story, three-bedroom, two-bath home with 1,300 to 1,400 square feet.”
Despite the pandemic, Rowe plans for Habitat for Humanity to build and sell six homes in 2020, the same number the organization has completed in recent years.
“Our homes make a huge difference in people’s lives,” Rowe says. “The family’s mortgage is $400 to $500 less than paying rent. They can then usually put money aside after meeting their monthly expenses. They can afford better childcare and better food. They can stop living paycheck to paycheck.”
Keep up to date on Habitat for Humanity Women Build Week and learn more about how you or your company can get involved: www.shrhabitat.org/events.