In the News: Alice Waagen featured in article, "Women Building Homes"

National Women Build Week highlights Habitat for Humanity’s work.

By Delia Sava
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Arlington Connection

Alice Waagen is wearing a hard hat and a tool belt and she’s covered in dust from the demolition work she is doing at the Perry Hall Condominium, the Habitat for Humanity 12-unit building on South 17th Street in Arlington. The construction project is an existing apartment building that will be converted to condominiums.

Waagen is taking part in National Women Build Week (May 1-9), an initiative by Lowe’s and Habitat for Humanity which challenges women to devote at least one day to efforts to eliminate poverty housing. This is the first Women Build event for Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia.

“My female friends who knew of my work with Habitat would tell me, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that but I can’t hammer, I can’t saw, I can’t give back’ and this drove me crazy because the way that the program works — the volunteer house leaders break down every task so that it’s suitable for anybody’s size, anybody’s level of skill,” Waagen said.

WAAGEN STARTED volunteering with Habitat over five years ago. “I was mostly helping in the office with recruiting and staffing issues. My background is in human resources so I started in that capacity and as part of the Habitat family I was also helping on build days,” said Waagen. Then in the fall of 2008 as a way to encourage more women to get involved, Waagen founded Habitat Women Who Build. The group works under the umbrella of Habitat for Humanity to raise money and bring together women from all walks of life to volunteer on the construction projects.

Virginia Patton, of the NoVa chapter of Habitat says Waagen has been instrumental in the local success of the Lowe’s initiative. “We are very grateful for her support — not only does she faithfully serve on the board of directors but she also contributes significantly through Women Who Build,” said Patton.

When Patton contacted Waagen this past winter to tell her about the Lowe’s grant, she immediately agreed: “Absolutely we can do that, and I went back to my network and found this group of women [about 25] and that’s why we’re here today.”

As the construction manager, Harry Street is responsible for all the work on the project. He says he has a group of dedicated volunteers, nicknamed “the sandlot gang” who have good skills and help to train less experienced volunteers. Street came to work for Habitat four years ago after having owned a general contracting business for 23 years. He is quick to note that they use sub- contractors for the plumbing and electrical, which requires a license to perform the work.

“We are going to put families in here that need affordable housing … they work in the community but can’t afford to live here,” Street said. Families who qualify will also contribute 300 to 500 hours [depending on the size of the family] of “sweat equity” in their future home. “You get to meet lots of different people and they’re all working together and they really feel great that they’ve helped out. Even in this economy the corporate groups have been really generous,” Street said.

According to Waagen, the project will take an estimated 18 months to complete and require an “army of volunteers.” Over the course of a project relationships are established between the future homeowners and the volunteers. “I always say if you’re only building two days a week with a volunteer unskilled workforce, 18 months is pretty darn good,” Waagen laughed.

THE MOTHER’S DAY timeframe was chosen for the initiative because of its significance. More than 12 million children — one in six — live in poverty housing in the United States. Waagen wants to see more women involved: “I think women have a very special sense of home and family…I want to let women know that they can contribute, they can participate. It’s a woman’s thing.”

Waagen enjoys her work but says the ultimate reward for her is at the dedication ceremony when the building is complete and they turn over the keys to the homeowners. “It is one of the most moving ceremonies,” she smiled and added, “lots of Kleenex.”