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Women Build helps a Miami single mother earn a new house

Lisa Carter wanted a yard for her three daughters, a place for them to play and ride their bikes. The women with hammers and paintbrushes and saws wanted to help a single mother in need. The result: Carter is getting a house from Habitat for Humanity — not just any house but one built by an all-women volunteer force as part of a revived Women Build program.

“It’s beyond what I imagined,” says Carter, 39, a cafeteria manager at Miami Northwestern High School. “We can sit outside in peace and quiet. I can send them out to play and they can ride their bikes in a safe place. We’re so excited.”

Carter’s house, a new four-bedroom, two-bath in Brownsville, is the color of mamey outside and infused with hope inside. For weeks, she and other women, volunteers from different walks of life, have spent Thursdays and Saturdays measuring, sawing, hammering and painting under the supervision of an on-site Habitat employee.

It takes 12 days spread over 14 weeks for a typical Habitat house to be built and Carter’s was completed Nov. 17, when volunteers did the final grading, landscaping, painting and blinds installation. The girls already have plans for their bedrooms.

The eldest, Dearra Stubbs, 13, will paint her room a serene green. Then, “I want to put some decorations up, posters,” says the eighth-grader.

Middle sister, Deandra, 11, prefers purple and peace signs. “Lots of them, all over. It’s my first time having my own room,” she says shyly.

The youngest, Dajia, 6, looks up coyly at her sisters before blurting: “Pink. I want mine pink.”

The family now lives in a rented apartment in an Opa-locka complex where there is no safe place for the girls to play. So when Carter saw a flyer about the Women Build program, she attended the first meeting at a neighborhood Baptist church. That was in February 2011, and she eagerly went through the application process with Habitat, a Christian ministry that builds homes in partnership with low-income families.

Part of that process requires the homeowner to volunteer 250 hours of work at her own home and others. Carter, a single mother, met this “sweat equity” requirement early on, and then began to donate the extra hours to Habitat homeowners who have difficulty meeting the total because of work and family commitments. “I want to do it because others have done it for me,” Carter says.

Carter’s house is the sixth of 10 houses Women Build plans to erect by 2014 as part of a five-year program launched in 2009. The foundation is poured by a contractor, and the plumbing and electrical work are done by professionals, but volunteer women do everything else — from the drywall to tiling to insulation. Nationwide, the Women Build program has built more than 1,900 homes since 1998.

The local Women Build chapter was launched in Miami in 1996 and in a span of three years built three houses before interest dissipated. In 2009, Stephanie Sylvestre, who works in the purchasing arm of Subway, and a friend revived the organization and now Women Build has plenty of volunteers. “They want to be part of making the community a better place,” Sylvestre says.

On a balmy Saturday, Victoria Fear, a 24-year-old University of Miami graduate student, was applying white paint to Carter’s front door with a cigar paint roller, a thin roller used for special small jobs. She has worked at two other Habitat for Humanity sites out of state, but this was her first with an all-women crew for Women Build. She doesn’t mind giving up an entire day for a worthy cause. “You get a lot more than what you put in,” she explains.

She came with other UM students and the director of her community and social change graduate program, Laura Kohn-Wood, who is hoping to make this an ongoing class project. “It’s a great opportunity for students to see a model in action, especially since so many of the students are new to Miami,” she says.

Most of the women have little, if any, experience in building. They come anyway. Carlos Ayala, Habitat’s on-site construction supervisor, says the volunteers he’s worked with are eager learners. They especially like tiling and painting.

The most difficult trade to teach? “Framing — where doors go, where you put your studs, that kind of thing,” he says. But, he adds, many women leave the volunteer site confident that they can use their skills in their own homes.

A handful of volunteers do know their way around a hammer and a measuring tape. Paula Reid, a special agent in charge of the local Secret Service corps, grew up with a father who was a construction foreman. She’s worked on Carter’s house twice and hopes to get other secret service employees in her district volunteering.

“This is important,” she says. “Part of leadership is giving back to the community.”

Watching the women toil away got Carter a bit teary-eyed. “It makes me feel so good,” Carter says. “They could be doing something else on their Saturday, but here they are.”