Girl Power

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, October 2007
• Photos by STEVEN PAUL HLAVAC


Women put down their cell phones and picked up hammers for Lake County’s Habitat for Humanity Women Build event.

When school teacher Coco Wakefield received the keys to her new home in July, she knew the house on Hilldale Avenue in Sorrento was unique. The three-bedroom home was the result of teamwork—more importantly an all-female team that spent Friday and Saturday mornings for more than seven months building the dwelling for the single mom.

“Although a monetary value has been placed on the house, this home is priceless,” Coco said when she opened the door to her new address at July’s dedication ceremony. “I’ve made so many new friends.”

The Wakefield home is the second Women Build event sponsored by the Habitat for Humanity of Lake County, Inc., which hopes to have an all-women project annually. Women Build is a Habitat for Humanity International program that encourages women and girls to make a difference by building homes. Nearly 1,000 Habitat houses around the world have been built by all-female crews.

“Building a home is very empowering for women,” explains Kelly Pisciotta, Habitat’s Project Manager for Development. “And it’s lots of fun.”

The more than 100 volunteers who worked on Coco’s home heartily agree. A core group of about 25 women missed only one or two weekends during the course of the project. Friends brought friends, and each week they learned new skills together.

“We learned that women can build anything,” says Lee Conger, who served as the project leader. “There’s something about women working together, too—we talk about our kids, jobs, and families.”

Lydia Smith of Mount Plymouth missed only three Saturdays during the entire process.

“This is a great experience for women because we learn how to do things that we normally don’t get to do, like how to shingle a roof,” Lydia says. “I’ve made a lot of nice friends and I’ll definitely get involved again, maybe even become a team leader.”

Teaching the women how to frame a house, shingle a roof, wield hammers, and lay tile was licensed builder Sharon Nickell-Olm, a former family practice physician who served as the site supervisor for the Habitat project.

“The challenge is to keep it fun for the ladies but at the same time make sure the job is done right,” says Sharon. “It’s a daunting task at times because most of the volunteers have no experience with tools. But we want to make it perfect for Coco and her boys.”

Wishes in The Feng Shui Way

If Coco Wakefield ever has to lift up the flooring of her new Habitat home, she’ll find Feng Shui “blessings” written on the foundation by the Women Build volunteers.

Lee Conger, who spearheaded the Women Build fundraising drive and served as project leader, briefly explained the ancient art of Feng Shui to volunteers one Saturday morning. She referred to the Bagua, a diagram that shows the energies associated with eight different directions. Lee placed markers of corresponding colors for volunteers to write their affirmations and blessings on the home’s framing or foundation.

“We had blessings upon blessings in that house,” says Lee. “The volunteers called it ‘blessings graffiti.’”

Lee chose the left corner of the house, where she wrote “Coco, you have found wealth and abundance.” That area, according to the Bagua, is the wealth and abundance space.

Although the messages were covered by drywall and flooring in the final days of construction, Coco had the opportunity to read them all.

“It was a fun thing to do,” says Lee, who admits to being only a novice in the art of Feng Shui. “Everywhere we turned, something wonderful was written.”

Sharon proudly points to the exactly plumb walls and how the windows popped right in one Saturday. The devotion and hard work paid off because inspectors and subcontractors who checked on the project were impressed by the excellent workmanship. The house passed all of the inspections, which Sharon says are often harder for Habitat houses than others because inspectors want to make sure volunteers did it right.

“We had women who had never been on a roof before,” says Sharon. “By the end of the day they were tarring and running around like mountain goats up there.”

Sharon builds large custom homes in Lake and the surrounding area. The 1,150-square-foot Wakefield home was different for her and her team but not because of the size.

“In my regular job, my cell phone is my tool,” she explains. “Here, I physically work side-by-side with the volunteers using real tools and teaching them how to build.”

Coco Wakefield • Photo by Steven Paul HlavacGetting qualified for a Habitat home was a two-year process for Coco, who recently became a special education teacher at Mount Dora Middle School. After she completed the application process in August 2005, she put in more than 300 “sweat equity” hours on other Habitat homes and attended classes designed for new home owners. Her house was the fifth one that she had worked on. She is now responsible for a $48,000 interest-free mortgage that she re-pays to Habitat, which then uses the money to build more Habitat homes.

“Coco is the epitome of what a Habitat owner should be,” says Wanda Langlotz, who serves as Coco’s family partner and will stay in touch with her for a year. “She is a hard worker and was an excellent morale builder as the honorary site supervisor for her home.”

Coco and her sons, James and Nikolas, moved from a 50-year-old rental that was in extremely poor condition. A native of Sorrento, she left to attend Tuskegee Institute, but dropped out. Eventually she returned home and to school at the University of Central Florida, where she received a B.A. degree in Exceptional Education. For three years, she worked odd jobs to get by while she completed her education.

“I wanted better for my boys,” she says with a smile. “A lot of people were praying hard for me.”

Habitat had a few hurdles to overcome to finish the Wakefield home. Although Lowe’s sponsors the Women Build program nationwide, local donations are still needed to complete the projects. Contributions for the Wakefield home were slow coming in until Lake Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie wrote a compelling article about Coco and the project.

Hundreds of letters from fellow school teachers containing $5, $10, or $20 donations came pouring in. And then Sorrento-based J.A. Croson & Co. stepped in as a sponsor. In-kind contributions and donations added up to more than $35,000, more than enough to complete the project and add $14,000 in seed money for Lake’s next Women Build project, which is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2008.

Coco says that what she’ll remember most is the way the women have given their time cheerfully. She also believes that building one’s own home has certain advantages.

“Now I’ll know how to fix things,” she says with a laugh

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