Women unite to build homes for low-income families

Habitat for Humanity aids Ethiopian ex-Pat, fire-ravaged domicile

Published: Friday, May 10 2013 9:35 p.m. MDT

Volunteers help build a house in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. More than 10,000 women are expected to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity construction sites across the country in recognition of National Women Build Week.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Women across Utah are cinching up tool belts and swinging hammers for the Habitat for Humanity's annual National Women Build Week.

Women have joined forces to help build homes for low-income families, and the Salt Lake Valley Habitat is busy preparing many homes, including one for a single mother of three.

Ed Blake, executive director of Salt Lake Habitat, said the volunteering from May 4-12 is a time exclusively for women.

"(This week is) a recognition of women on both sides of our program," Blake said. "Volunteers help other women get in safe and affordable housing."

It's those volunteers who are helping build a new home for Meseret Demeke.

Demeke left Ethiopia, where she worked as a reporter, eight years ago. She decided to leave because of political unrest.

"I didn't have the freedom to say what's right, so I decided to move," she said.

Being five-months pregnant with her son Sami, she and her daughter Tight left.

Demeke heard about the Habitat for Humanity program after arriving in the United States. But because of the language barrier, she applied to the wrong organization. Three years later, after being motivated and helped by family friend Brent Clark, her application was finally processed and the home was dedicated to her.

She said she was speechless when she found out about the home.

"I still don't believe it now," she said.

She recalled feelings of suffocation arriving in the country unable to speak English, and being pregnant.

"But all of these things pass," she said. "(Now) I'm so happy and just grateful."

Demeke works on her home Saturdays with the volunteers and says their selflessness is inspiring.

"When I see these amazing people, I want to be like them," she said. "I want to take that (motivation) and help other people."

The experience, she said, has changed her family. Now, her youngest son, 8-year-old Isaac, will have room to play in and a bedroom of his own. She said their new home will help give them a healthier life.

Clark describes Demeke as "progressive" and said everything she does is for her children.

"She just has a desire to make a better life for herself," he said. "The American dream I guess."

Salt Lake Valley Habitat has five homes under construction, and Blake said they manage about 22,000 volunteer hours a year. There are four other affiliate groups in Utah working similar projects this week.

While there are some women on site learning to "swing a hammer," Blake said he has been surprised by how many women have impressive construction skills.

Laura Scott and Catherine Venti, attorneys at Parsons Behle and Latimer, volunteered to lay sod for another single mother at last year's Women Build Week. Venti said it wasn't hard for Scott to recruit the volunteers.

"Everyone rallied around the idea (of motherhood) and thought it was great," she said.

Venti also said the group of colleagues impressed her with its dedication.

"They were out there, laying sod and cutting it with butter knives," she said.

Scott said as someone who sits behind a desk at work, there is something moving about seeing the direct results of their physical labor.

"We showed up to a yard of dirt, and when we left, they had grass," she said. "It makes me appreciate my own life more and the opportunities I have."

Besides building new homes, Habitat for Humanity is also helping a family rebuild the home they lost in a fire four years ago.

Rustie Larsen said the only thing left of their house was the bearing walls. For the last year and a half, the family has been living in a trailer parked in their driveway while they attempt to rebuild their home.

They've done a lot of the work themselves, but Larsen said after a while, "the money was just running dry."

Living in the trailer has been hard for the Larsens, especially in the winters when she said the temperature doesn't get above 55 degrees.

"When someone moves, the whole trailer moves," she said. "There is no privacy."

A friend of the Larsens contacted Habitat for Humanity and arranged for them to get help. In working with Habitat, Larsen said she can't express enough thanks. "It's nice to have someone in your corner."

The family is expected to move into their repaired and "better than before" home at the end of June.

"You don't realize what having a home means until you don't have one," she said.

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

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