By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times
When the stock market crashed in 2008, so did Shellie Layne—and it might have been the best thing to happen to her. If the market has rebounded and reached historic highs, so has Layne.
Layne is founder of the Women Under Construction Network (WUCN), a nonprofit that aims to teach women how to be self-sufficient with home-improvement projects, as well as how to take charge in their own lives.
The Moody, Alabama, resident established the organization 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.
So, she learned to speak that language and wrote about her travails in her column, which received an overwhelmingly positive response.
“These women were so empathetic. My story helped them, so I started writing dual articles about home improvement and how to ‘fix’ your life,” she said. “I was in their position. My son was seven at the time of the divorce [he’s now 24], and through the stress and the pain, it made me feel like I never wanted other women to go through what I went through. … I’m able to let them know they can make it out of [whatever they’re dealing with].”
Laying the Foundation
Layne saw a need for a place where women could learn to do basic household repairs, as well as repair themselves, and she spent the next few years laying the foundation for the WUCN.
“In 2014, we had our first ‘Power Tool Social,’ which served as a place for women to learn about household tools and draw inspiration from those tools,” she said.
Each session features an “Educational Objective,” a “Motivational Focus” and a “Giveaway.” For example, the first social was called “From Stuck to Unstoppable,” for which the Educational Objective was repairing a sink and the Motivational Focus was “Becoming an Unstoppable Woman.”
“[For the Giveaway], we sent the women home with [drain-cleaning products] and plungers. Every time they thought about getting stuck in their lives or in their drains, they would have a way out,” she said. “I was expecting maybe 20 women to show up, … and we had over 100.”
Other Power Tool Socials have included “What Turns You On?,” for which the Educational Objective was learning about electricity, the Motivational Focus was “Restoring Personal Power,” and the Giveaway was LED light bulbs, as well as the “Toolbox Checkup,” during which the WUNC gifted women with toolboxes and brought doctors in to talk about health matters, such as blood pressure and diabetes.
“It’s about bringing together women of all economic and cultural backgrounds, of all ages, to build themselves up,” Layne said.
Establishing the Framework
The group grew largely by through word of mouth, Layne said. Even now, six years after the WUCN began, people learn about the organization through other members of the community because most women who join the are older and don’t rely on social media, although participants range in age from 18 to 80.
Layne, who was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and has one sister, found her love for home improvement when she became a real estate broker. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Adams State College and a master’s degree in education from Cambridge College. She worked spent 12 years working for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Boston; in Baltimore, Maryland; and in Birmingham.
“During my time in Baltimore, I worked in community development and transitional housing for women,” she said.
Layne’s initial goal was real estate, so she left her executive director position at the Y to pursue a career in her chosen field.
“At that time, I would shadow my contractor to learn about the houses. Eventually, I tried my hand at house flipping, [buying a house, making repairs, and then selling the house], and I loved it,” said Layne, who would go own to sell millions of dollars in real estate.
Supportive Like Steel
House flipping would be the closest she came to home repairs before starting the WUCN, but now she uses her experience to oversee one of the more educational home-repair workshops available in the Birmingham metro area.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the WUCN has been conducting virtual seminars, including “Tool-Ology” videos that provide tool tips for women. Additionally, the WUCN holds “building sessions” for self-esteem and support on a twice-a-month conference call.
“Earlier in October, we talked about the characteristics of a brick house: how it’s strong, durable, and stays in place,” Layne said. “Another was called ‘Built to Last,’ for women [who] have to do things they’ve never done before, such as being teachers or doing home repair, so we talked about stress.”
Layne has some go-to tips she thinks every woman should know, such as how to change a toilet flapper. Women can easily be overcharged because they don’t know what they’re doing, she said: “Something small like changing a toilet flapper can save so much money in water and sewer fees. … They call a plumber when [all they need is] an $8 gadget.”
She also devotes time to community outreach.
“We just finished a virtual gospel concert with Mission Hugs, [a Birmingham-based nonprofit that provides resources to families with special needs], and raised upwards of $27,000,” she said of the Facebook Live event that reached more than 10,000 people. “We also volunteered with Jessie’s Place, [a shelter for homeless women and children in Birmingham], where the ladies helped with food and I gave a motivational talk.”
Layne works hard to ensure that the women she helps understand they aren’t going through their tough times alone—and she isn’t ashamed of her low points.
“[Having been a] top mogul who had to face foreclosure and bankruptcy, I’m able to let them know they can make it out of [whatever they are facing],” she said.
Layne said God was essential in helping her get through her challenges.
“It’s who I am in Him and who He has allowed me to be to these women,” she said, adding that God was her guiding light.
“Had I not believed in who I am and in my faith, I wouldn’t be doing what I love right now,” Layne said.
To learn more about the Women Under Construction Network, visit wucnetwork.org, and like the group on Facebook at Women Under Construction Network.