Standing on a lawn nestled between two cavernous dumpsters and an empty house in Elmira, New York, we listened politely and attentively as safety warnings, general instructions, and corporate sponsor thank-yous were given out. Surrounded by nearly a hundred volunteers, all gathered and eagerly anticipating the day’s work, there was an audible buzz in the crowd that made it difficult to hear the presenters.
Everyone was here as part of the Chemung County Habitat for Humanity Women Build event. The day was organized to celebrate the empowerment of women. The work would involve the demolition to much of a house that was being renovated, and the removal of trash and debris from another building that needed emptied before construction work could begin.
Already thinking of the work ahead, it was more than surprising to hear John-Michael’s and my names called out. There was a moment of palpable fear, like maybe we were in trouble, or had parked somewhere we shouldn’t have. Logic and listening quickly assuaged my alarm, which was immediately replaced by pride and surprise. It turned out we were being presented with a certificate of Congressional Recognition from New York Congressman Tom Reed, for our commitment to volunteering. It was exciting and flattering, but we came to work, so the celebration was short lived.
The sound of nearly a hundred people pulling on their work gloves, grabbing tools, and starting the dirty, grimy, dusty job of demolition is as deafening as it is exciting. Conversation is challenging, but that leaves time for contemplation as you work. Thoughts flood your mind about how amazing it is to see so many women capably doing demanding and physical work. Pondering how satisfying it is to know that an old house in disrepair is getting a second chance at being a home. Moments of wonder about how anyone ever thought that color of tile would look good in a bathroom.
Ripping down ceiling tiles, removing water damaged drywall, and pulling up old flooring, we were quickly gutting the bathroom, leaving nothing but the old bath-tub behind. As the dumpsters outside filled up and began to overflow, and the house began to reveal its still sturdy skeleton, we and all the other volunteers could see how much is accomplished in such a short amount of time when people come together for their community, their neighbors, and each other.
During our lunch break, we were able to chat with some of the locals about their town, its charms (Mark Twain is buried here), and its scars (it's still struggling to recover economically from a devastating flood many years ago). We had a chance to talk with Sylvie, the Executive Director of the local Habitat for Humanity. She’s the one that notified her congressperson about us. We thanked her not just for that surprise, but for all she does to organize events like this, and most importantly, what she does with Habitat for Humanity to build homes and strengthen communities.
There’s power and empowerment in numbers. Inspiration in seeing boundaries extended and women breaking out of the conventional and unfairly restrictive molds that seem to be ever present. Witnessing so many strong, dust and dirt covered women (and a few men) working together to accomplish so much good is motivating and encouraging. It gives us a chance to show others and ourselves what we’re capable of. And we are capable of so much.
We can build each other up.
We can build better communities.
We can build.