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Meet the Architects Behind Birmingham’s Women Under Construction Network (WUCN)

Shellie Layne, founder and CEO, of Women Under Construction Network. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

By Je’Don Holloway Talley | For The Birmingham Times

Women Under Construction Network was founded in 2014 and became an established 501c3 in March 2015. The group supports women, their children, and the elderly living in underserved communities. It uses actual tools combined with corresponding life parallels to teach basic home repair and life repair and work with contractors to perform minor repairs for low-income elderly. Here’s a closer look at its leadership.

Shellie Layne, founder/ CEO, as a wife, and mother with a corporate career Layne was living the good life — until the 2008 recession. “When the market crashed, I crashed with it,” said Layne.

“In the midst of all of that, I ended up going through a divorce, becoming a single parent for the first time, foreclosure, and bankruptcy…I was going through several experiences that I never thought I’d go through,” she said.

One of those experiences was shopping for a new air conditioner in the sweltering Alabama summer.

“I went to Walmart because I needed an air conditioning unit… I didn’t have the money or the expertise to do the fix-it things that I needed but the heat was bearing down and I needed to take care of me and my son [Noah, now 27],” she said.

“I cried in Walmart because I just didn’t know what I was going to do from there but I pulled myself together and decided ‘ok, Shellie, you can either wallow in this, or you can do something about it’.

At the time, Layne was writing a column in The Birmingham Times titled ‘At Home With Shellie’ about real estate and home repair.

“…I wrote my story ‘I Cried in Walmart’, and I got people and women responding saying ‘Shellie, I understand’ ‘Shellie, I’ve been through it.’

The experience gave birth to Women Under Construction Network which she founded in 2014 and became an established 501c3 in March 2015.

“I tell people all the time sometimes it’s the tragedies you go through and the negative experiences that propel you into what your destiny really should be. Sometimes what we think is bad is God using it for our good,” said Layne.

The Roxbury, Massachusetts native went on to host her first women’s event called ‘From Stuck to Unstoppable’ in 2014. “I got a volunteer team, and we brought women together and showed the women how to fix and unclog their sinks and how to become unstoppable as women…,” Layne said.

Since then, the WUCN has launched more than 10 community projects, most of which are in conjunction with city government initiatives, organizations and businesses, mental health professionals, financial advisors, general contractors, and volunteers who all believe in giving back and servicing human needs.

Jacqueline French has been with WUCN since 2017 and connects many of its programs with public housing residents. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

Jacqueline French, 48, an integral part of WUCN since 2017, fused her leadership role in the organization with her position as Director of Workforce Development at The Housing Authority Birmingham District [HABD], principally through the W.I.L.A.H. Project, which is designed to foster self-esteem and self-sufficiency using physical tools for home repair with metaphoric tools for life repairs.

Having watched WUCN grow over the last 7 years, French has witnessed a notable evolution. “I’ve seen great partnerships develop. More initiatives have sprung up throughout the years, we’re reaching more women and getting the name and mission of the foundation out nationwide,” she said. “We started locally, but now we have national recognition, we have more notoriety, we’re able to go into schools and not only help children but single women, low-income women, married women, widowed women, young women, old women, women from every walk of life.”

Carlisha Harris oversees logistics, marketing on social media, website updates, and curates WUCN’s monthly newsletter. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

Carlisha Harris, 24, administrative assistant to Layne, oversees logistics, marketing on social media, website updates, and curating their monthly newsletter.

Harris been with the program since the fall of 2019, at the age of 19, and said one of the network’s goals is to increase the involvement of younger women in their programming.

“We yearn to give them the best footing and foundation for this thing we call life just as it was provided to me and has made a significant impact in my life,” Harris said. “I was 19 when I came on board and of course, I was bound to continue maturing in my life journey but the tools that [I’ve learned] have helped me navigate life much more confidently and with a different kind of grace and patience for myself.”

The Fairfield native attended Miles College and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer and information sciences with a concentration in graphic design and also serves as the IT Coordinator for the WUC network.

As a Gen Zer, Harris said a challenge WUCN faces is getting them out of the house on Saturday mornings. “Many of our programs [are held] early in the morning…  “[And so], we have been considering hosting programs at special times that will be more attractive to them. But once they finally come and experience the programming, I’ve noticed that they do make a greater effort to come because they see the value of it,” said Harris.

Harris has also learned that other Gen Zers like herself are more interested in volunteer opportunities presented by the WUC network.

“I’ve found that Gen Z has been more interested in the volunteering aspect of our programming I believe it gives them a sense of purpose and grounds them in the community in ways they otherwise may not have been,” said Harris.

Asked if she thinks today’s world or social media impacts Gen Z’s state of mind Harris said WUCN teaches them ways to cope.

“We help them work past life perceptions or mindsets influenced by social media or pop culture by keeping Christ at the center of everything we do. Ms. Layne has this saying, ‘I may not have all the answers, but I know a carpenter who does’. We encourage our ladies to keep their eyes on the one whom our help comes from no matter what is going on in the world. Personally, that gives me a lot of peace and helps me sleep a little better at night,” Harris said.

Dr. Kimberly McCall, WUCN board chairman, helps with the measurements of successs. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

Dr. Kimberly McCall, WUCN board chairman for the past two years, said her duties include general operations, finance, program implementation, grant writing, growth, and program development.

“Our partner support has grown tremendously. I have watched the program start with the main programs like Building Hope: 21 Days of Kindness and health programs, [but] we have branched and grown into community-based programs that reach not only women and children but also elderly women.

McCall said community partnerships are paramount to accelerated growth, and collaborations with professionals and other organizations such as the Women’s Foundation of Alabama, the Housing Authority Birmingham Division, UAB, general contractors, and mental health professionals aid the WUCN in maximizing community impact.

McCall works for UAB as an assistant professor in the biotechnology and regulatory affairs department and bridged a partnership between UAB and the WUCN.

“I represent UAB along with some of my other colleagues, and our partnership allows me to combine my passion for community-based programs and community building with what I do professionally [research, data, and development],” McCall said. “…the UAB partnership helps WUCN to measure the effectiveness of its programming [and the] project is called WILAH/BeFit, which focuses on building empowerment through fitness and also includes a focus on self-efficacy and social cohesion.”

Winifred Patterson coordinates YT4Life Mission, which teaches life skills and builds self-esteem and self-confidence in young people. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

Winifred Patterson, 52, is a Brooklyn, New York native, and has been an educator for 20 years. She serves as coordinator for the group’s YT4Life Mission which teaches life skills and builds self-esteem and self-confidence in youth through activities that use tools and home repair parallels. It’s a supervised afterschool program for youth ages 5 years and higher held at the Ensley and Central Park rec centers on Mondays and Wednesdays.

“The afterschool program was begun by [Layne WUC founder and McCall, WUC board chairman] … I brought education to the [concept] and a little more structure to it. I use SEL [social and emotional learning], those soft skills to teach the children how to communicate with adults if they need help, and how to be a friend… and we merged those [tools/principles] with what we do in the after-school program,” Patterson said.

“The tools vary from hammers and nails to paint brushes and electrical things like a caulk gun. [We teach them] little things that they can do at home and can learn something from, and then use those tools as metaphors for life. We try to use an analogy with each tool,” she said.

For example: “You use a hammer to hammer in a nail, and in life you would [use your mind] to hammer in and focus and get things done,” Patterson said.

“We just [started] an outreach with Miles Colleges’ female athletes under the I BUILD-U-niversity [WUNC program], in conjunction with Trustmark Bank.”

She said the program consists of “community service activities, team building, and trust exercises, financial literacy, credit building, buying a home, a car, [the financial aspects are] Trustmark’s part, and we [WUCN] talk to them about the tools of life,” Patterson said.

For more on WUCN visit www.wucnetwork.org