It wasn’t even noon yet, and I was already sweating through my clothes. So much of that week would be spent in a perpetual state of perspiration and exhaustion as I went from disassembling and packing and loading straight to assembling and unloading and unpacking.
I was fresh out of college and finally on my own. I stood in the middle of my combination kitchen-living-dining room, surveying my very first apartment, and my chest swelled with pride. The place didn’t quite reach 450 square feet and didn’t look any newer or updated than when it was constructed nearly 50 years earlier, but I didn’t care. It was mine.
I learned a lot from that first apartment. Small lessons like not all oven temperature gauges are created equal. There were bigger lessons, too. The pride of having a place to sleep at night and maintaining a budget to keep it that way. And one lesson that took longer to learn — that where I was in my life was due wholly to the women around me.
Without my mother teaching me the power of financial independence, a one-bedroom downtown apartment would have been a pipe dream.
Without my best friend from college rolling up her sleeves and spending that first weekend assembling furniture, I never would have had the physical power nor determination to finish the job, and I undoubtedly would be sleeping on the floor.
Without the example of my grandmother, who treated every guest as one of honor, I never would have so willingly opened my home to those who needed it in the years to come and earned the confidence of those who would become my closest friends.
A decade and several apartments later, I once again find myself sweating through my clothes. Squinting under the unseasonably harsh May sun, I am on a construction site south of Atlanta for Habitat’s National Women Build Week, an event created by Habitat in partnership with Lowe’s that is dedicated to celebrating the force of women everywhere, all while helping every one of us recognize the innate strength within ourselves. During these seven days each year, participating build sites become havens of encouragement, community and growth, places where individual talents are combined and multiplied.
The thing is, for any Women Build to be successful, for any one of us to find her strength, we first need to recognize our weakness. It necessitates that we open ourselves to improvement, to lean on others to carry heavy loads, to acknowledge shortcomings and accept when we need a hand up.
Women Build is a lesson in building, repair and maintenance. Perhaps more importantly, it’s one in humility and harmony. And it’s fitting that these lessons are centered around the home, a historic source of power for so many women in their roles as mothers and homemakers. Now, with tools in hand, we can exercise that strength in a whole new way.
As I look around, I see women of all ages crouching on the concrete slab chalking lines where interior walls will stand, on their knees in the red Georgia clay installing insulation, on ladders priming and painting the walls where family portraits soon will hang.
“Wow,” I overhear one volunteer remark after the group has abandoned their individual tasks to jointly raise a 50-foot-long wall. Shaking her head in disbelief, she swiftly sums up both the task and the final, critical lesson: “Together, we are so strong.”
At past Habitat builds, volunteer Maria Caruso always found herself gravitating toward less strenuous tasks like painting and organizing. But on her first Women Build, Maria, who works with me at Habitat for Humanity International, makes the decision to push herself.
“This time, I tried to do a little bit more,” she says. “I was swinging a hammer a lot more than usual.” Working beside a female crew leader helped inspire this shift, Maria says. “When you have someone who looks a little bit more like you, showing you how to do something, it really helps.”
Elsewhere during the day, I see another colleague who knows her way around a build site help a new volunteer navigate the miter saw. Another colleague holds the ladder for Toyea, the reason we are all here. Toyea and her daughters — 14-year-old Ta’Nya, 11-year-old Zeniah and 9-year-old Jayla — will be living in the house that we are working on.
For months, Toyea has been logging hours between her two jobs to fulfill her sweat equity commitment. She quickly moved from novice to nail-driving pro helping her neighbors, all female-headed families, construct their Habitat homes. Now, Toyea finally is working on her house, ready to use all that she had learned helping the women on her new cul-de-sac.
Throughout her life, Toyea has been guided by the strong women close to her, including the grandmother who raised her and the boss who convinced her of her potential. But it is the recent outpouring of support from women that she didn’t even know that has touched her in a new way.
“This whole experience has been incredible, but especially Women Build Week,” Toyea says. She is moved watching all these women work together. “They could be doing something else for themselves or their families, they came out to help me and mine. It’s amazing.”
What motivates her to keep pushing? She immediately points to the next generation of strong women: her daughters.
“I want to be that inspiration and that motivation for them,” she says. “I want them to think, ‘Well, my mom did it. So I know that if she can do it, I can do it.’ I want to them to know that anything is possible.”