To the Women Roofers of Rutherford County, their craft is just like an old-timey quilting bee, only with a lot more sweat and a bit more grit, on a work surface with a 26-degree pitch and an unforgiving edge.
The bonding and pride they feel hit a milestone the second weekend of July as they installed their hundredth roof on a Habitat for Humanity home in the Spindale community. That home is itself part of the ambitious 100-home SECU Mountains-to-the-Sea Challenge, in which Habitat for Humanity NC partners with Habitat affiliates throughout North Carolina, using a $10 million State Employees Credit Union Foundation grant to build a home in each of the state’s 100 counties.
Women Roofers was formed in 2002, says Nell Perry Bovender, out of sheer necessity when the only volunteers who showed up to repair a leaky roof were three women who looked at the job and simply decided to get to work. Bovender is coordinator of the Rutherford Housing Partnership, which matches volunteers to repairs needed by low-income homeowners. The group works closely with Habitat for Humanity.
“Roofing is the shared hands-on skill; our voices provide the intimacy, the laughter, the strength that has become the Women Roofers,” Bovender has written.
“Susie Kernodle, another of those first Women Roofers, is also a seamstress. She caught on quickly. ‘I realized it’s no different from laying out a dress pattern. You just use different tools.’ ”
“It started slowly, because none of us knew what we were doing,” Bovender said in a recent interview. “It took several weekends to make progress. As we gradually got better we saw this as a way to get more women and young people to do hands-on work. We may be the only roofing group they have. We’ve become the group to do the roofs in Rutherford County. After Hurricane Katrina we took our spring break three years in a row to Gulfport and Pearlington, Mississippi.
“They knew we could do the roofing jobs. Then we were sought out by Habitat” in Goldsboro, Pinehurst and other towns.
“It was a novel idea to have that many women, all middle-aged and older.”
She hopes that publicity around the group’s 100th roof, combined with the expansiveness of the Mountains-to-the-Sea Challenge, will encourage younger people to get involved.
Rutherford is a large, rural county of 66,956 as of 2013. Its unemployment rate has been among the highest in the state over the last few years due to textile plant closings.
“People struggle with day-to-day expenses; home repairs are put on hold until it’s unsafe,” Bovender explains.
A ministry of hard work
Doing instead of preaching is an ethic that runs deep among the Women Roofers.
“It’s very hard, strenuous work,” says Laura Smith Hodge, “But it’s very fun, and the end result is a really satisfying feeling.
“It has been an outlet for me over the years, fun and fellowship with a group of women I have come to love and admire,” Hodge explains. “I have a very supportive family that allows me to do this. My daughter, who is 12, has been on a couple of roofs with me. I have been given a gift to share God’s word. My mission is to use my hands instead of my mouth.”
Hodge says the heights don’t bother her, though the group respects those who have those concerns.
“We know each other’s fears, likes and dislikes,” explains Hodge, who is a pharmacist who owns an independent drugstore in Rutherfordton. “We’re not going to put them in danger.”
This is the 34th roof that Women Roofers have done for Habitat.
“We are excited to be working with SECU on the home of Millie Rodriguez Birriel,” says Kim Freeman, executive director of Rutherford County Habitat for Humanity. “The two-bedroom house will become the new home of Millie and her son Jaden. Our local SECU branch has provided us with volunteers who are helping with the construction of the house while The Women Roofers are roofing it.”
Freeman is especially pleased with the creative way SECU is providing the funding for this home, the 15th that Habitat of Rutherford County has built in this community. At the closing on this house, Rutherford Habitat will receive the full amount of the mortgage, which will allow them to immediately begin building another home for another family in need.
“We are very appreciative of the support from the SECU … as it allow us to go forward with our mission to bring people together to build safe, affordable homes, communities and hope.”
By Bill DuPre
Habitat for Humanity NC