Women take charge with Atlanta Habitat house

What does Mommy do while I’m in school?

Audrey Balzer answered that question one day at a pre-kindergarten class where the kids were preparing a special hand-bound Mother’s Day book for their moms.

Audrey’s answer: “She plays on the computer and goes to Costco.”

It was a troubling moment for Alex Balzer, a stay-at-home Morningside mom who, at the time, was actually working very hard as a school volunteer organizing fundraisers, though most of her work was behind a keyboard.

She wondered: “What are we showing our children?” For that reason, she was glad when her volunteer work with Atlanta Habitat for Humanity produced a very tangible result: a new home. It is the fifth Atlanta Habitat house built by members of the Women’s Build, a subgroup within Habitat, with about 400 members, all volunteers. One of them is Balzer, who is the chair.

“For her to see you coming home dirty and sweaty and then to go to the dedication and see a house that you built … these are all good things,” said Balzer, speaking on a recent Thursday while standing at the edge of a Habitat construction site in west Atlanta, where several dozen women swarmed over a house in progress.

The blue, four-bedroom bungalow is about three-quarters finished. When it is done, in October, it will be home to a young preschool teacher, her daughter and two of her sisters. This isn’t that unusual.

“Perhaps 88 to 90 percent of our houses are owned by women,” said Larrie Del Martin, CEO of Atlanta Habitat, retreating to one of the back bedrooms of the house under construction to conduct a conversation away from the din of nail guns and cordless drills.

What is unusual, said Martin, is that this house is being built entirely by women. Women also raised $80,000 for the house, most of which was contributed by women. (The house will cost more than $100,000 to build.)

While it’s old news that construction is no longer a boys-only club, these volunteers say it never hurts to demonstrate to our daughters, to the new homeowner and to the world at large, that women can build a house from the ground up, with nary a man in sight.

“When they [the new homeowner] see 250 fabulous women come through here to build this house, it really does impress them,” Martin said. The new owner will put in 250 hours of “sweat equity” for the house, but will also pay a mortgage to Habitat of about $550-$650 a month.

The strength of sisterhood was on display in more ways than one on this particular Thursday. Among the volunteers was a group of corner-office women who, for the day, had traded their power suits for power tools.

“Ahh, that feels good!” said Teya Ryan, president and executive director of Georgia Public Broadcasting, using a cordless drill to hang a kitchen cabinet, while fellow exec Hala Moddelmog, president of Arby’s Restaurant Group, held the cabinet steady.

"You've got to push and bump, push and bump," Ryan said. "That's how you use a hammer drill." Moddelmog has built Habitat houses with former President Jimmy Carter around the world, but claims, "I have no skills. That's the first time they let me use power tools."

Neither woman is likely to be found pursuing home improvement projects — “I’m lucky if I can get dinner on the table and homework done,” Ryan said — and both were excited to be part of the undertaking.

They took care to point out that their greenhorn cabinetry work was under the watchful eye of Mary Wright, a skilled volunteer who is earning her contractor’s license. So it is with each part of a Habitat project: Untrained volunteers are carefully shepherded by skilled managers. (Some complex elements, including wiring and plumbing, are handled separately by paid subcontractors.)

Jo Kirchner, CEO of the Primrose Schools, a nationwide chain of private preschools, took time out from caulking the chair rails in the dining room to express her delight that the new owner is a teacher of 3-year-olds with the Head Start program.

“Education gives everyone a lift up and out,” Kirchner said, “so now it’s more than volunteering; now it’s personal.”

For many, the experience itself was a personal high point, outside of its value as community service, or even as a way to network with other female power brokers.

“It’s really killing three birds with one stone,” said Alex Balzer. “You’re networking, you’re doing some community service and you’re learning how to hang a cabinet.”