Habitat works to include women in construction

Habitat for Humanity volunteer Virginia Newton takes a rare break from painting at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady. Photo by Rebecca IsenhartHabitat for Humanity volunteer Virginia Newton takes a rare break from painting at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart
Habitat for Humanity volunteer Virginia Newton takes a rare break from painting at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Habitat for Humanity volunteer Virginia Newton takes a rare break from painting at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — Habitat for Humanity homes are designed to empower the people who buy them, but on Van Vranken Avenue in Schenectady, builders benefit, too.

The site is part of the Women Build initiative by Schenectady Habitat.

Longtime volunteer Bruce Pomeroy began to hatch the idea when he noticed women sitting out of construction work at the regular build sites. He didn’t blame them for hanging back.

“It’s the way we’ve all been cultured,” Pomeroy said.

He made it his mission to help instill them with the confidence to create. Since then, in addition to creating an affordable home for lower-income families, Women Build has created a safe way for female volunteers to learn practical construction and home-repair skills.

“It’s so nice to feel like you can be self-reliant,” said Virginia Newton as she expertly edged the walls of 2106 Van Vranken Ave. with off-white paint.

The Habitat for Humanity project at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

The Women Build project at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Newton, a Habitat volunteer for a decade, got her start in 2004 with the first Women Build project.

She loved the demonstrations, the opportunity for hands-on learning and the feeling of satisfaction when each home was turned over to its new owners.

And one other thing: “I was just hooked on power tools,” Newton said. “Ever since, I’ve been asking for them for Christmas and birthdays.”

The builds aren’t strictly women-only. Men often help teach skills or lend a hand on days when the group is short on volunteers, which happens on occasion.

Pomeroy said many women who work on the Habitat houses are teachers who can only help in the summer or they bear responsibility for childcare in their families and have trouble making it to the build sites.

Still, Newton said any experience with Habitat construction can have an impact on the volunteers themselves.

“The more knowledge, the better,” she said.

A volunteer rolls paint onto the walls at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

A volunteer rolls paint onto the walls at 2106 Van Vranken Ave. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Newton has laid flooring, installed roofs, painted, sawed, scrubbed and everything in between during her decade as a volunteer. She once helped lay a foundation in a snowstorm and worked on a roof on a day that was so hot, the shingles started to melt. In her own home, she can fix almost anything.

For those rare times when she’s stumped, she feels prepared to hire someone else. She now knows how much time projects should take, what they should cost and how to describe a problem with technical precision.

It’s a surprise there’s anything Newton can’t fix. She’s lost track of the number of homes she’s worked on, but her guess is somewhere around 40. Some she worked on from start to finish, while others she pitched in for specific projects. Now a veteran, she also coaches newcomers on safety habits.

In addition to all she’s learned, the relationships she’s formed with families and fellow volunteers keep Newton coming back to build sites like the one on Schenectady’s Northside, which will likely be dedicated in early October.

The new homeowners are required to put in sweat equity by helping with construction, meaning they work side-by-side with the volunteers. They form a bond that makes the dedication ceremonies especially moving and sometimes extends into friendship.

“We even helped a family move once in the pouring rain,” Newton said with a laugh.

“Everybody has such different backgrounds, but everybody’s here for the same reason. We have a good time.”

Correction: A previous version of this article attributed the wrong last name to Virginia Newton in some quotes.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.