By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times
Of all the tools Jackie French handled during a tutorial on life lessons, the one that stood out for her was a tape measure.
French, who works as a program director with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD), considers herself a do-it-yourself (DIY) guru, so she decided to become more proficient by joining the Women Under Construction Network (WUCN), a nonprofit aimed at helping single mothers and underserved women make repairs to their homes—and also to themselves.
“I’m a Ms. Fix It. I think I can fix anything,” French said.
During a 10-week session on the basics of home repair, French listened to instructors who used tools, such as hammers and drills, to teach life lessons.
“The one I remember was a measuring tape,” she said. “We talked about how we measure up at home, how we measure up to where God wants us, and what we’re supposed to be doing in our lives. I’ll never look at a measuring tape the same way again.”
Thanks to the WUCN, several Birmingham-area women don’t see home repairs or some life challenges the same way either. The organization was founded in 2014 by Shellie Layne—a former newspaper columnist, realtor, and business executive—to help women become more self-sufficient. For more than a decade, the nonprofit continues to offer programs for underserved families.
Layne founded the WUCN after her own personal crisis. She was columnist for The Birmingham Times from 2004 until 2008, writing the “At Home with Shellie” column, which covered house-related topics ranging from toilet flappers to termites.
“Then the stock market crashed in 2008, and I crashed along with it,” Layne recalled.
She went through a 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; he is 24 now.
“I had no air conditioning in my house, and I didn’t have anyone to help me repair it. I didn’t know what to do,” said Layne, who reached out to an associate for help but felt like he was speaking another language when he talked to her about installing the part she needed.
Layne didn’t want other single moms to go through what she did, so she founded the WUCN, which has served more than 2,000 women to date—women like French, who was invited by a WUCN volunteer to participate in the What I Learned At Home (WILAH) project, a grant-funded workshop that teaches women the basics of home repair.
“It was about more than just fixing my home; it was about fixing myself,” French said. “I thought I was just going to be rolling up my sleeves, but it was a wonderful surprise.”
What impressed French was how Layne balanced life lessons with hands-on projects.
“Whether it’s gardening or home improvement, she incorporates what’s going on in your life,” said French, 44, who added that the life lessons go a long way in helping her better understand herself.
In addition to acquiring life skills, French absorbs every bit of home-improvement advice she can get. Just before attending her first WILAH session, she remembers her son roughhousing during a party and “… his butt going through a wall.”
“I’m thinking: ‘Oh, my God! I don’t have money to pay somebody to fix this hole,” she said.
Thankfully, one of the WILAH lessons was on that exact topic.
“I went to the home-improvement store, got a piece of Sheetrock and some [Sheetrock] mud, and fixed it. I was so proud of myself,” French said.
Other participants in the program had their own takeaways.
During the recent in-person WUCN mini-session on Sheetrock repair at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store in Irondale, Alabama, Valerie Price, 66, who lives in Birmingham’s Oxmoor Valley neighborhood, said she learned a valuable lesson about patience.
“My sister and I have been doing some work for my 91-year-old mom, and one project involves repairing a hole in her kitchen wall,” said Price, who works as a program assistant at Samford University. “I had no idea that the session was going to be about filling a hole, but the message behind it was also so important to me.”
Price said she was going through a rocky point in her life and felt God was helping her through the mini-session, during which the women hammered holes into Sheetrock and patched them up.
“He was totally speaking to me about things in my life that have been damaged or need to be repaired. It can be repaired,” Price said.
Clotele Brantley of Vestavia Hills, Alabama, who has been a single mom for 15 years, also sees the WUCN as a place to learn about more than home improvement.
“The one thing that is near and dear to my heart is building and supporting a family and supporting women. … When I learned about [the WUCN], I became so committed to its purpose,” which, she said, helps women love themselves and learn that self-esteem is important in relationships.
Brantley, an attorney who practices family law, recalled bringing a friend to a WUCN event.
“After the event, she talked to me about her past and her childhood, and how being at the WUCN really lifted her up,” Brantley said. “The woman brought her mother along, as well, and the WUCN helped them both deal with some hurt and some pain they had lived through in their own relationship.”
Dydrea Pittman, a 47-year-old McCalla resident, said she’s learned practical skills, such as installing ceiling fans and basic electrical repair. She’s also learned to not be afraid to make mistakes.
“I believe I can do things,” she said. “I’ve been hesitant in the past to set goals for fear of failure, but [Layne] sees your problems from the outside looking in. It’s a struggle sometimes, but she gives you that confidence and pushes you to see yourself for who you are.”
To learn more about the Women Under Construction Network, visit wucnetwork.org, and like the group on Facebook at Women Under Construction Network.