UVA Volunteers Turn Out for ‘Women Build’ Project

March 17, 2023
Nina Fortune, Theresa Brock, Jane Centofante, Emily Douglas renovating a house

Nina Fortune, a senior logistics coordinator at Facilities Management; Theresa Brock, who is purchasing a nearby home; Jane Centofante, a communicator; and Emily Douglas, a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, prepare to cut a sheet of wallboard. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Craftswomen from the University of Virginia recently contributed their talents to help build a Habitat for Humanity house in the Southwood Development in Albemarle County.

The project was part of the housing nonprofit’s “Women Build” month, focusing on recruiting women to volunteer. Ryan McCarthy and Jessie Gammon, apprentices at UVA’s Division of Facilities Management, and Emily Douglas, a Facilities Management diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, organized the UVA volunteers.

“I reached out to Habitat to see if they were going to plan a ‘Women Build’ this year because I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for the women of Facilities Management to give back to our community,” Gammon said. “I worked for Habitat for Humanity for about a year from 2021 to 2022 and feel really strongly about its mission and particularly the work it is doing in Charlottesville.”

They recruited volunteers to work on three separate days. Thirty-three female Facilities Management employees volunteered, along with two male volunteers. Five of the women work in the skilled trades and six in construction management, with the rest in non-construction roles.

UVA volunteers have worked on 12 of the 33 houses Habitat currently has under development. The first day’s work focused on drywall installation, but the work changes depending on the needs the day the volunteers arrive.

“Assignments are based on construction schedules,” said Angela Guzman, the communications manager for Charlottesville Habitat for Humanity. “The most important skill is the willingness to learn and lend a hand. Experience is not needed. Our staff will teach volunteers everything they need to know for their build day.”

Fortune, Ryan McCarthy and Sonya Swiderski from Facilities Management renovating a house
Fortune climbs the stairs as apprentice Ryan McCarthy and Sonya Swiderski, from Facilities Management’s financial operations, measure a wall. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The build days might include anything from framing and drywall to painting and landscaping. “Every task contributes to our mission of selling a safe, decent and affordable place to live for our homebuyers,” Guzman said.

Jess Wenger, an environmental projects manager at UVA, said everyone was very supportive.

“Since everyone in the group was new to sheetrocking, it was great to see how quickly we all came together to work as a team to get the job done,” Wenger said. “I was surprised how easy it was to do in general. However, it was also challenging trying to make the perfect cut-outs for electrical and plumbing. It was a fun challenge that offered lots of hands-on problem-solving that a lot of us don’t get to do in our day-to-day jobs.”

“They said that the day would involve hanging sheetrock in the house,” volunteer Jane Centofante, a Facilities Management communicator, said. “I was pleasantly surprised with how productive our group was. None of us had any experience with sheetrock. We received some quick instructions and they let us go.”

The group installed sheetrock in the two-bedroom closets over the course of the morning.

“We were split into three groups,” Centofante said. “We measured, cut, glued and screwed it in ourselves. It was especially inspiring to meet and work with Habitat homebuyer Theresa Brock, who beamed when speaking about her nearby home, which she expects to move into in June.”

Brock, who plans to purchase a nearby home this summer, worked with the volunteers as part of her “sweat equity” contribution toward her home.

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“They did great,” Brock said of the UVA volunteers. “They didn’t mind doing what needed to be done. They were helpful. Everybody was friendly. They worked with us. You meet some amazing people and you’ll be amazed by what they do and how they work.”

A prospective Habitat homebuyer must put in at least 200 “sweat equity” hours working on their eventual home, or someone else’s, Guzman said. Half of those hours must be in construction. 

“We made a lot of headway on both levels of the house,” McCarthy, a plumbing apprentice, said. “I was glad to be able to contribute to the build and felt in awe of the scope of the whole project. There are so many homes that are already forging ahead to be move-in-ready, but this is just the first wave of the Southwood build.”

Gammon and McCarthy have experience volunteering in the community.

“A few months ago, a couple of us from the Facilities Management tradeswomen group worked with Building Goodness Foundation to sand and stain a bunch of picnic tables for Greenbrier Elementary,” she said.

Gammon and McCarthy hope these projects encourage other women to explore the trades.

“I loved the opportunity to work in a trade outside of my own and see how all the stages of building work together beyond Grounds,” McCarthy said. “I hope that the visibility of things like Women Build show women that there are opportunities to learn and explore the trades. I think once you have the first taste of it, building can naturally draw you in.”

“I hope events like this draw more women into the trades,” said Gammon, a first-year apprentice who has not selected a trade yet. “Growing up, I never really worked with my hands at all, so the first time I built something, it was kind of like a ‘eureka’ moment. I had absolutely no clue how much fun it could be.”

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University News Associate Office of University Communications