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Women Only: Habitat Celebrates Home-Building Milestone

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Two homes are going up on James Street in West Charlotte this week to celebrate a national movement that began 20 years ago. Habitat for Humanity's first home to be built entirely by women was here in Charlotte. Since that time, nearly 1,800 Habitat homes have been built by women-only crews around the world. Dozens of women in tool belts and pink t-shirts scurry around the construction site. Most are volunteers, like Alice O'Toole (pictured, right.) She's a little out of her element, but wearing a big smile. "This is the first time, so I'm just kind of learning as I go," says O'Toole as she pounds nails into the house's frame. In about 12 weeks, a low-income family will move in with a no-interest loan from Habitat for Humanity. Not a single male hand will have swung a hammer on this house. It's a tradition Habitat calls "Women Build" and it started with a brainstorm by a couple of the nonprofit's local employees in 1991. Susan Sewell was Habitat Charlotte's executive director at the time. (Pictured, left with a photo of herself from the first all-women Habitat building crew 20 years ago.) "We had over 500 women touch that house," recalls Sewell. "And we wanted it to be a true women-build - we wanted to do the plumbing, the electrical, the cement. So we did that." The idea was to honor the single mothers who made up a majority of Habitat Charlotte's homeowners then - as they do now. But Sewell says they also just wanted to prove it could be done. They dubbed the Port-a-Jon at the construction site a "Port-a-Jane" and put flowers in the urinal. Women brought their daughters. One even had a newborn in arms. "It was a fun, fun, build," says Sewell. As word spread, Sewell started getting calls from other Habitat chapters around the country. Today Habitat for Humanity International has an entire department devoted to women-only building projects. Sewell moved on to other nonprofit work, but she still lives in Charlotte and occasionally drives by that house where it all started. "Never in a million years would I have imagined it would grow like this - grow this big," says Sewell. Janet Stewart was the recipient of that first Habitat house ever built by women. In 1991, Stewart was a single mother with two daughters - 8 and 13 years old. (Pictured, right with daughters Tanita and Shameka in 1991.) They lived in Charlotte. She worked at a data entry job and struggled to find an apartment they could afford. "Every year or two the rent would go up and after awhile it was out of our budget so we ended up moving every couple of years," says Stewart. Her daughters were always changing schools and leaving their friends. "It was tiresome after awhile," says Sewell. Then Stewart learned she could qualify for a home with a no-interest mortgage from Habitat for Humanity in exchange for working hundreds of hours to help build other homes in the program. The 1,000 square foot home just north of Uptown brought her stability and peace of mind. "I don't have the worries I did when we were renting, because I didn't have to worry about if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, where my kids gonna go?" says Stewart. "That was my goal - to have a home for my kids. No matter what, they always have some place to come back to." Stewart is now 52 and her daughters are grown, but the home looks very much like it did 20 years ago (pictured, above). The robin's-egg-blue paint still looks fresh. There's a tidy patch of freesia and tea roses near the door. Only the towering maple in the front lawn gives away how much time has passed. The Habitat crew planted it and a crape myrtle in the yard as saplings. "And as you can see, they have thrived," says Stewart. She has too, here in the house that women built. Janet Stewart (right) and her daughter Tanita who was 8 when they moved into the first Habitat home built by an all-women crew.