How one group of local women is helping “build” the community through Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County
By Karen Dybis
Photography by Brett Mountain
On a Thursday in early March, the scene unfolding at one newly renovated Southfield home looked like a typical housewarming party: a kitchen peninsula set up with snacks, a crowd congratulating the new owner and people wandering through each room, complimenting the master bedroom’s barn door or expansive living room with space for games, studying or just lounging.
What made this homecoming different, though, is the team of people who built the actual house: volunteers on the Women Build team of Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County. The program brings women together to construct housing for people in communities across Metro Detroit.
“You put the right people together and the right hands on it and things turn out beautifully,” says Johnna Struck of Waterford, who, along with hundreds of others, helped create a sophisticated house for an employee of a West Bloomfield hospital and her two children. (Due to privacy concerns, the homeowner cannot be identified.)
Struck is chair of the Women Build team in Oakland County, making her a mix between a cheerleader and drill sergeant on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. Since 2014, Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County Women Build volunteers have come together annually to build or rehab a home through volunteerism, fundraising and teamwork. This Southfield home is the sixth that the team has completed in Oakland County.
Dozens of volunteers and supporters turned out at the home-dedication ceremony, including team member Beth North, a Birmingham jewelry designer. North wanted to do something special for the new homeowner, so to hand over the house’s keys, she crafted a delicate bracelet featuring a purple amethyst — a nod to the homeowner’s favorite color — and an engraved charm that said “Welcome Home.”
Work on this particular project started in July 2019 and took about eight months, says Keely Rose Dudal, major gifts officer for Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County. Around 475 volunteers rebuilt and rehabbed the four-bedroom home from top to bottom. (Women Build team members are all asked to bring 8-12 friends or business colleagues to the build site during the volunteer days.) “It takes a lot of hands to complete a build,” says Struck, adding that many of the women brought family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and business clients.
Months before anyone swings that first hammer, Struck and the other Women Build volunteers get to work raising money and recruiting additional volunteers. Right now, there are about 65 members of the Women Build team in Oakland County, all of whom donate $500 annually. Construction know-how isn’t necessary: “Many [of the volunteers] have skills,” says Struck. “Many more do not!”
Struck, for one, joined the Women Build team in part because she experienced life as a single mother after a tough divorce but also to give back as a female business owner (she runs Changing Places Moving in Waterford). “Women in leadership have the skills, connections and a heart to build a home,” she says. She has lent a hand on Habitat projects across Oakland County, from Pontiac to Oak Park to Madison Heights, and says each renovation has its challenges — but this particular home was a “rough little shack” that likely could have been torn down more easily than it was to rebuild. “It’s about making the impossible possible,” she says. “We tore down walls. We rebuilt the roof. We added trim and molding. Every year, we deliver a final product: a house. And now the new owner will turn it into a home.”
The homeowner’s pride in her new residence is evident: She greets every Women Build team member by name and gamely takes on the challenge of installing her new mailbox. Habitat homeowners have sweat equity in their projects, and this owner has earned the home and then some, officials say.
For return volunteer Al Block, seeing the impact a build has on not only the homeowner but also the community is why he keeps coming back. (Yes, men can help with Women Build projects, too.) Block, a past president of the Greater Metropolitan Association of Realtors, says such programs show how much a home changes the neighborhood — as well as the people who help build it. “I was on that roof,” he says, pointing to a picture that shows several faces popping out of the holes as the team added new boards and shingles. “It was fun!”
Adds Tim Ruggles, the executive director and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County: “The volunteers reach out and extend [Habitat’s mission]. It’s really just phenomenal. I’m always blown away not just by how impactful they are but also how much fun they have.”