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Habitat for Humanity program aims to build community by diversifying construction workforce

'Everybody can build. All women can build. We just don’t sometimes have the confidence to believe we can do it,' says Habitat Executive Director Tara Hill.

FREEPORT, Maine — You’ve likely heard of Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps build homes for people in need around the world.

There are seven chapters in Maine. The chapter in Greater Portland is taking on a new challenge that goes beyond its core mission by offering a Women Build program. 

Laurel LaBauve is very much at home in the middle of a construction site, but not many women are. 

"If you look at the whole world of construction and the trades, only ten percent of the people employed in that area are women," she said. "And if you look on the job sites? It’s three percent. So we’re talking a little tiny percentage of people."

LaBauve is the owner of SoPo Cottage. She has flipped homes in the South Portland area for the last ten years.

"When I first got started, there was never a woman on one of my job sites, with all of the different sub-contractors and everything. This job ... we’re over ten years into it ... we had three women come that were part of the demo team and we had a gal that was part of the heat pump installation team," she recalled. 

Women are slowly moving into construction jobs, and Habitat for Humanity hopes its program will be the nudge more women need.  

"Everybody can build.  All women can build. We just don’t sometimes have the confidence to believe we can do it. With the current market? I think it’s really the moment where women could get into this field if they want to," Tara Hill, executive director of Habitat for Humanity's chapter in Greater Portland, said. 

The Women Build program works like this: Habitat for Humanity designates specific dates for women to show up and work at the organization's job sites. Women sign up and raise $100 to participate. Businesses can also sponsor a team or a particular day. 

"It’s going fabulous. It’s so much fun. It’s so empowering to be able to do something like this, you know? To get confidence in ourselves," Betsy Wakefield, one of the participants in the program, said. 

At a site in Freeport, Wakefield and her friend Lynne Nichols were put to work installing flooring. They measured and tapped the boards into place, carefully cutting the pieces to go around walls and meet the corners. Wakefield rekindled a desire she remembers feeling as a kid.

"I grew up dreaming to be a carpenter, actually, and I was redirected onto a more college-appropriate path.  I totally would love to do something. I call it my retirement plan. I’m gonna retire from being an attorney and become a carpenter. So, we’ll see," she said with a laugh. 

Upstairs, Gretchen Gimbel and Debra Wallace also laid flooring. 

"I’m all about empowering women, and I like to build projects, and I find strength with using power tools and doing things that are gender norms of being typically for men," Gimbel said. "Women can do this too. We’re just as strong; we’re just as capable. We can do it. We don’t need a man to do it."

Habitat for Humanity hopes to accomplish a lot when it offers these Women Build days.

"We are really beginning to recognize more and more how a safe and affordable home is the basis of everything – of all growth and of all opportunity in someone’s life. If you don’t know that you can come home and lay your head somewhere and just feel comfortable there and know that you’re going to be there day to day and that your children are safe. Nothing else can grow if you don’t have that," Hill said.

The Greater Portland chapter is now building three homes in Freeport, all of which are in different stages of completion. It’s also received a $2.6 million grant from the American Recovery Plan Act to build 20 more homes, so plenty of work is ahead. 

Hill urges all women to consider trying a Women Build day. 

"It doesn’t matter what your skills are, what you think your skills are. This is for everybody to come. It’s not just building a house; it’s building community," she said. "It’s going out there with people you may or may not know, all focused on wanting to help someone else, wanting to be part of giving in our community, which I think we’ve learned over the last couple of years community is really important."

The next Women Build day is Saturday, June 25, in Freeport. Additional days may be added based on interest. 

To learn more about Habitat for Humanity's Women Build program, click here

To learn more about the Maine chapters of Habitat for Humanity, click here.

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