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University of Wisconsin students Abbey Malom and Mike Gillen work on an Athens Habitat for Humanity house Monday.  The two are among a group of Wisconsin students helping to build the house on Levert Avenue for a single mother with two children.
Daily photo by John Godbey
University of Wisconsin students Abbey Malom and Mike Gillen work on an Athens Habitat for Humanity house Monday. The two are among a group of Wisconsin students helping to build the house on Levert Avenue for a single mother with two children.

Women hammering for Habitat
Wisconsin university students, Athens women join forces to construct home

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — When there's 2 feet of snow at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, what do nine of its college students do for spring break?

Go to Las Vegas with their classmates? Nah.

Head south to Florida's beaches? Nope.

They spend the week in Athens helping build a home on Levert Avenue for a single mom with two children.

What do retired local women do with their free time when spring temperatures arrive?

Sip sweet tea on the veranda? Forget it.

Spend the afternoon window shopping? Yeah, right.

On Monday they worked side by side with the university students on the first Women Build Habitat for Humanity house in Limestone County. Women Build gives women and girls the chance to make an impact in their community by addressing substandard housing.

The project, which is the local affiliate's 25th house, is attracting a mix of women, some who have construction experience and others who want to learn.

"Daddy let me play with a hammer and saw as a little girl, and I'm glad he did," said Diane McFarland, a retiree who heard about the project at First United Methodist Church in Athens. "This is my first time to be involved with Habitat, and I'm tickled to be here."

McFarland helped do an expansion on her home and build two barns.

"Hammering is my favorite part," she said, "and I just love watching those walls go up. It's so rewarding."

In contrast, university senior Lisa Maesawa, an international student, has never done construction.

"It is an experience for me," Maesawa said, wearing a hard hat and holding a hammer. "I wanted to try something new, and I've never been to Alabama."

Melissa Barton, president of Athens-Limestone County Affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, said the affiliate registered with Collegiate Challenge through Habitat, which helps pair college students with projects.

Kurran Sagan, who works for the university's Student Affairs, said his office offers community service projects for students. In 2006, a group went to Gulf Port, Miss., to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. This year, the office chose Athens.

"Some of these students maybe have swung a hammer," Sagan said, "so it's good for them to learn these skills. I also think it's a great service opportunity for them to get a taste of what it is like to help others."

More than just construction

Women are helping with more than construction. Roberta Ress, a certified midwife, opened her home to the nine students and adviser. Local churches and youth groups are providing food and snacks.

"I was expecting we'd be sleeping on a church floor," Sagan said. "The reception has been great, and there's no way that in a month's time we could eat all the food we're getting."

This is past-Habitat President Daisy McCormack's 24th Habitat house, and seeing the students and women embrace the challenge is satisfying.

"One of the best things you can do for a family is give them a decent place to live," she said. "It's good to see these students willing to help, and to see women getting involved."

Barton said the project isn't excluding men.

"We're just making sure we're including women," she said. "So many want to learn about home construction."

Lowe's held workshops in February, Barton said, to teach women about roofing, power tools and vinyl siding.

"What surprised me is that we've had couples coming to help work on the house," she said. "Husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends are working together."

The university students will work the remainder of this week on the roof and frame. The community is offering them an opportunity for fun in return for them driving 15 hours south to do community service. For example, Cinemagic Theater in Athens has given them passes to a show.

"I don't mind giving up my spring break to help," said Wisconsin sophomore Carly Robaidek. "I've worked with Habitat before, and besides, it's warmer here."

Morgan women built home in 2002

This is not the first time North Alabama women have grabbed hammers to help Habitat for Humanity.

The Junior League of Morgan County organized a Women Build effort in March 2002. More than 100 women took part.

They built a home on Spring Avenue Southwest for Tammie Vinson, a single mother with two young boys.

Although women did all the building, they did not completely exclude men. Male volunteers from Worthington Steel brought their grills and cooked lunch for the women.

Paul Huggins

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