Building confident handywomen

Building confident handywomen

For the most part, I am the handyperson in our family, but tools are not always my friend.

I like home projects. I have even completed some, with help from family and friends.
Others, not so much. Take the recent toilet-seat conundrum.

Our downstairs bathroom is what you might call dated. I spruced it up a few years back, stripping off the ugly flowered wallpaper with help from my 2-year-old son and giving the oak vanity a face-lift with a coat of dark brown paint and new handles.

So when it came to replacing the cracked wooden toilet seat, I thought I could figure it out. Just a few nuts and bolts to deal with, right?

Except that the bolts on the seat had corroded, so the plastic nuts were sort of fused Blog Photoonto them. I tried socket wrenches, hammers and just about everything else people suggested, but they wouldn’t budge.

We went through several weeks of what I’ll just call an uncomfortable situation (it was a big crack) until a more talented relative came to the rescue on a brief visit. He cut through the plastic nut and pried it off with a variety of tools. Took all of about 15 minutes.

Years ago, I took my limited skill set to a Habitat for Humanity project in Champaign. I was placed on a drywalling crew with another rookie. It may have been a hasty decision.

I remember the crew chief sighing as he looked over the interesting drywall-screw arrangement on our wall. I think we were moved to a different task after that. Like bringing snacks.

I would have benefited from the Women Build initiative that Habitat launched about 10 years ago. The idea was that women too often assumed they didn’t have the skills to help at a build site, and they’d feel more comfortable with a project led by women.

It’s proved very popular, and Habitat partners with Lowe’s on clinics to train women before the actual workday. More than 100 women have attended the local clinic over the past two years.

Toni Delporte of Champaign decided to take the plunge this spring. The 30-year-old vice president and credit officer at Hickory Point Bank had never used a power tool in her life — “not even a little bit” — but ended up being a pro with the Sawzall.
“It was pretty empowering,” she said.

Before, she was intimidated by the idea of working on a house. She figured Habitat needed brawny guys to do heavy lifting. Delporte checks in at 5 feet, 31/2 inches.

“No one really trusts me because I’m so little,” she said. “The women’s clinic makes it more accessible for women like that who may be scared.

“It was very hands-on, which was exciting.”

Participants were broken up into groups to learn skills at different stations. First, she used a drill and a miter saw — “I already knew how to do that, although I learned I’d been doing it wrong for a long time, so that was helpful,” she said.

Then she got to nail shingles on a roof and hang siding, which were much easier than she expected, and even frame a wall.

“That wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be, either," she said, partly because the lumber was pre-measured.

Delporte did learn she’d been hammering the wrong way: holding the hammer too close to the head.

“To get leverage, or something like that, you’re supposed to hold the handle toward the bottom. I missed a couple of times, but generally, I hit the nail on the head,” she said. So to speak.

For the project itself, a house at 1007 Berkley Ave., U, the Women Build crew hung siding on the garage, sodded the lawn and finished the landscaping.

Two newbies who hadn’t even gone to the Lowe’s clinic were assigned to help with the siding.

“Are you sure we can do this?” they asked crew supervisor Paula Ogle of Champaign.
“You absolutely can,” she told them. “We’ll teach you what you need to know.”

After they hung the final two pieces, with the whole group watching, “we all cheered,” said Ogle, who attended the Lowe’s clinic eight years ago and now chairs Habitat’s Women Build Committee.

Delporte got her chance with the power tools when the landscaping crew came across a tough root in the yard that turned out to be an old pipe. Delporte volunteered to saw it out.

“I figured it was maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to saw a metal pipe,” she said. The saw was heavy and “made my whole body vibrate,” but she did it.

She also got to meet Diane Sexton, the woman moving into the house with her daughter.
“That kind of was my favorite part, to see how much she appreciated people helping,” Delporte said.

She also loved the clinic for giving her “the peace of mind that comes with learning how to do things properly. It wasn’t difficult and overwhelming as I thought any of that stuff would be. When you know what you’re doing, it’s not as scary.”

And that makes all the difference. Knowledge is power.

“The misconception is that a man is supposed to do this kind of work,” said Ogle, who is a buyer for Hobbico at her day job. “What we instill in women is that you’re more than capable. You don’t have to get up on a ladder, but you can.”

Delporte plans to tackle some projects at her own house now. First up? Landscaping the front yard.

Another first-timer at the clinic told Delporte she might just try to become a contractor herself, since she’d had trouble finding a reliable one.

The beauty is that women can learn new skills to help themselves and others — and make “great friends” in the process, Ogle said.

“Why should I hire someone to replace shingles on my roof when I know how to do it?” she said.

Sign me up.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below or contact her at 351-5226, or

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