By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times
For years, Shellie Layne has been helping women fix their homes and their lives through the Women Under Construction Network (WUCN), a Birmingham-based nonprofit that empowers women to take on home-improvement projects with confidence and take charge of their lives.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Layne kept up the good work with virtual seminars and conference calls. Nevertheless, the women she worked with and her community were weighed down by the toll of the pandemic, racism and social unrest, and financial hardships.
Layne felt something more needed to be done, so throughout the month of June the WUCN is hosting Building Hope: 21 Days of Kindness, a series of 1,021 random and planned acts of compassion carried out by 121 volunteers. The launch event will be held on May 28 at the Oxmoor Valley Community Center (1992 Wenonah Oxmoor Road, Birmingham AL 35211).
“Our desire is that after these 21 days people will be so filled with kindness and they’ll see so many kind things being done around the city that they will have to pay it forward,” Layne said.
Some of the acts of kindness proposed include giving backpacks of hygiene products and other necessities to women experiencing homelessness, as well as showing up at local McDonald’s restaurants to give gift cards to women in the drive-through lines. Layne and her team are also partnering with 98.7 KISS FM to highlight folks who are “caught being kind.”
The WUCN has partnered with HART Tools, as well, to give away free tool kits during the campaign.
“The WUCN has a mission to educate, motivate, and empower women, and here at HART Tools, we similarly aspire to provide the tools and resources to build confidence in all people to do projects themselves, making life easier,” company spokesperson Susanjean Flaherty said. “When you look at all the lives the WUCN has helped, partnering up with them was an easy decision.”
Even though Layne is a native of Boston, Massachusetts, she considers herself a “Southern girl.”
“The Northeast is typically known as being cold, not just in weather but also in the personality and the temperament of those who live in the [region],” Layne said. “I don’t think I fit in that. I see myself as being warm and not closed.”
While Layne playfully says she’s “allergic to shoveling snow,” it’s Southern hospitality that makes her happy to call Birmingham home.
“I love the Southern mentality to care about your neighbors,” Layne said. “You talk to people in the grocery store, and you care about your grocery store clerk.”
Perhaps it’s this Southern sensibility that moves Layne to motivate others with projects like Building Hope: 21 Days of Kindness and all the other work she’s done and continues to do through WUCN.
Layne was helping people build hope long before she launched the WUCN. For 12 years, she worked for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA, more commonly called the Y) in Boston, in Baltimore, Maryland, and in Birmingham. During her time in Baltimore, she worked in community development and transitional housing for women.
After leaving her executive director position at the Y, Layne pursued a career in real estate and soon realized that she wanted to do more than sell houses—she wanted to learn how to fix them, too. With the help of contractors, she tried her hand at house flipping (buying a house, making repairs, and then selling the house) and loved it. She would go on to make millions of dollars selling real estate.
Along the way, Layne started writing a column for The Birmingham Times, “At Home with Shellie,” which covered a wide range of house-related topics; the series ran in the newspaper from 2004 to 2008.
In 2008, Layne’s life took an unexpected turn. She went through bankruptcy, foreclosure, and a divorce. She went from earning six figures to making minimum wage and found herself a single mother to her son, Noah, who was 7 at the time.
“My world was crashing down, but I looked at my situation and said, ‘You can wallow in this if you choose to, but your wallowing is not going to help anybody else,’” recalled Layne.
She then decided to share her troubles and what she was doing to overcome them in her column—and she received an overwhelmingly positive response. Noticing the parallels between home repair and the demolition and rebuilding of her life sparked the idea for the WUCN.
“I realized this isn’t just about real estate,” Layne said. “This is about people’s lives.”
Empowered Women Empower Women
The WUCN’s workshops, seminars, and socials always have the dual objective of teaching women both home-repair and life-repair skills because Layne believes that as a woman learns how to fix her home, she gains the courage and confidence to fix her life, too.
“As I got a chance to get to know those tools and become familiar with how they worked, it empowered me,” she said. “If you can fix a toilet flapper, you can be a CEO.”
Hattie Smith of Bessemer joined the WUCN in 2010 because she loved the Power Tools Socials that Layne hosted pre-pandemic. The events, which were often attended by more than 200 women, were set up like a construction area to teach women how to use home-repair tools, but they also featured music, food, and fun. For Smith, the connection and conversation with other women were the most meaningful aspects of the gatherings. Hearing other women’s stories motivated her.
“There are people who have been there, done that, and are on the other side,” Smith said. “The sharing of their experiences has helped me overcome many obstacles.”
Today, Smith is part of the network’s leadership team and is now using her story to empower other women.
“[Layne’s] constant encouragement, teaching, and expressions of confidence in me have helped me to know that I am adding value to the lives of others,” she said.
The network gave Carly Harris of Midfield a confidence boost, too.
“The women in this organization pour so much life and love into you that you can’t help but become the best version of yourself,” she said.
The 21-year-old Miles College student is the youngest member of the network. She joined in 2020 after being introduced to Layne by one of her professors. Since then, she has stopped second guessing herself and takes the lessons learned from the network and shares them with younger girls.
“I now walk with my head high, and I’m the most giving I have ever been,” Harris said.
Nikita Craig of West End started attending WUCN events in 2014 or 2015 and was invited to join the network’s planning team in 2020. She credits the group with teaching her how to set and achieve goals related to losing weight, saving money, and developing a spiritual practice. The network has also given her a stronger sense of purpose.
“[Layne] and the WUCN have pushed me out of my comfort zone, and with that push I am growing into the woman I always knew was there,” Craig said. “I have learned that I was always a strong capable woman with a solid foundation and my testimony will help empower other women.”
Keeping Hope Alive
Thanks to virtual events, the WUCN is currently touching lives in 62 cities and 13 states—but Layne wants to do more.
She hopes to begin hosting Power Tool Socials again in September, and she also has plans to publish a book and do more speaking engagements. Currently, the network is fueled by work of volunteers, but Layne hopes to soon be able to hire staff to help expand the nonprofit.
“Our goal is to be the number-one organization for women in the Southeast and in the nation,” she said.
To learn more about the Women Under Construction Network and the Building Hope: 21 Days of Kindness campaign, visit www.wucnetwork.org.