Elizabeth Mehren

(WOMENSENEWS)–Her former husband would never let her touch his mechanical toys, Cheryl told me. So the first trip she made after the divorce was to Home Depot to buy the biggest damned power drill she could find.

Cheryl told me this while wielding a nail gun on a hot summer Saturday in southeastern Massachusetts.

Power tools terrify me, so instead of raising my hand to use this device, I chose to steady a long piece of window trim while Cheryl attached it to a wall. Bam! Cheryl took to the nail gun like a regular at the Smith and Wesson firing range. Bam! Bam! Bam! In went the nails, like bullets, and Cheryl and I stepped back to admire our work.

Until we both spent a recent day together working to build a Habitat for Humanity home, Cheryl and I had never met. We still don’t know each other’s last names, ages, occupations or anything other than the casual–and constant–conversation that poured out while we hammered and sawed and caulked and talked.

I first became aware of Habitat–which builds low-cost houses in partnership with people who need them–years ago when I saw a picture of former first lady Rosalynn Carter laying roof tiles somewhere in Georgia. She looked most un-first lady-like with her hair tied back in a bandana and sweat pouring down her face. I thought: What a great role model. You go, girl!

Setting an Example

Like most people, I can always think of a million reasons not to sign up for worthy causes. I am a working mom; I travel constantly for my job; I have sandwich-generation issues with my elderly mother; blah, blah. Then my teenage son fired back that maybe I ought to be setting a better example if I was going to insist that he take part in so many community service ventures. I had to admit, he had a point. I raced to the Habitat Web site and with a few swift clicks found myself scheduled for a work day.

Habitat’s Women Build program particularly interested me. Nearly 800 houses around the world have been built by female crews and each year, about 150 new houses built by Habitat-sponsored women are added. I Googled Habitat to find out what was available around Boston, where I live, and signed up online.

The newest phase of Women Build is Girls Build, designed to teach 10 to 12-year-old girls about home ownership and home-building in a classroom setting through local youth organizations.

The sponsoring group, Habitat for Humanity International, describes itself as "a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry," founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller. Habitat is headquartered in Americus, Ga.

Not a ‘Feminist’ Issue

Among the "frequently asked questions" on the group’s Web site is this: "Why is Habitat promoting feminist issues?" The site’s politically adroit answer is: "Decent, affordable housing is not a feminist issue."

So there was the deal. If I wanted to help a family have a home–and maybe learn to use a power saw in the process–I had to be willing to share the group’s distance from the word feminism. OK, I figured I could deal with that.

Women Build stresses that construction skills are not required and that training will be provided.

Sure enough, there were Stacey and Cheryl to help me. Stacey, also a volunteer, worked as a neonatal nurse for 18 years. Then she horrified her family and co-workers by quitting to become a carpenter. The first thing I noticed about Stacey were her steel-toed workers’ boots and her below-the-knee denim shorts. We had plenty of time to discuss workplace fashion in the course of our day.

We also talked about the family that would move into the house we were building. We wondered briefly how they would squeeze four children and a mom and dad into the three small bedrooms, plus one and a half baths. But this Habitat-selected family–who would buy the home for $100,000 with a 20-year, interest-free loan–had been living in a tiny apartment in a rough, nearby town. This beige, wood-frame house would seem like a palace, at a price tag very close to construction costs.

The Ad Hoc Team

Stacey, Cheryl and I became an ad hoc team. While we finished windows on the second floor–and later, hammered railings into a new front porch–Mary was downstairs with her caulking gun. Mary looked every inch the country-club lady: expensive blonde hair, hands unaccustomed to manual labor, but man, could she caulk.

Outside, Taylor was shoveling mulch into a wheelbarrow and moving it from the front to the back of the house. Taylor, 16, had arrived with a sullen look of teen defiance, clearly forced into this form of philanthropical labor by her evil parents. She was drop-dead gorgeous–turns out, she models–with long, suntanned legs and tiny shorts rolled down to expose protruding hip bones. Within minutes, Taylor was laughing with the rest of us.

Irene, our site’s de facto mother superior, slipped out at noontime to bring back a feast of cold cuts donated by the local bagel shop. Somehow, Irene also produced chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven.

I never did manage to wrest the nail gun or the power drill from Cheryl’s determined hands. And I have to admit, I stood back in awe when Stacey used a noisy electric saw to slice boards for the porch. Maybe next I will be bolder. There will be a next time, I am certain.

With sawdust in our hair and caulking under our fingernails, we realized we didn’t know anything about each other’s politics. It didn’t matter. What we knew was that our hands, together, had helped a family have a better home.

Don’t tell Habitat, but that sounds kind of feminist to me.

Elizabeth Mehren is a Boston-based journalist and the author of three books.

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