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IN THE NEWS: Women Build: Senator Downing's staff helps build Habitat for Humanity home
May 08, 2015

By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle staff

Photo Gallery | National Women Build Week in Pittsfield

Video | Habitat for Humanity celebrates National Women Build Week in Pittsfield

PITTSFIELD — A work crew clad in pink T-shirts gathered on Thursday morning at 187 Francis Ave., the site of the latest Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity home rehabilitation project.

Here, members of state Sen. Benjamin Downing's policy and community relations staff took a day away from their desks on Beacon Hill to put some sweat equity into the Berkshires.

Donning a hard hat and wielding a crowbar, committee counsel member Christina Fisher hooked one end underneath a piece of old decking and swiftly pried it off its beam, like a pro.

"Yeah," exclaimed her colleague, Chris Gilrein, Downing's legislative and budget director.

"She didn't even know her own strength," district aide Vasundhra Sangar said.

Fisher smiled with satisfaction of this new feat. "This is awesome," she said. "I think I missed my calling."

Such is the power of Habitat for Humanity's national Women Build program.

More than 300 Habitat for Humanity affiliates are hosting Women Build events this year, with Central Berkshire Habitat participating for its fourth year.

The local program has grown exponentially since its first project, which only had six female volunteers. Downing and his staff — which also included his chief of staff, Bethann Steiner and legislative aide Chris Dunne — are among more than 100 volunteers registered for this year's women build.

Others include a legislative team led by state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, corporate teams from Greylock Federal Credit Union, Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America; Berkshire Realtors, Performance Automotive, a team of female military veterans from General Dynamics, and other community members.

"This is a first time for all of us," said Steiner, "but it feels really great to get out here and help."

For Women Build projects, at least 75 percent of on-site volunteers are women, and many of the homes being built or renovated have women as heads of household.

"Primarily, women are not confident in their building skills and handling tools. But as we teach them and they learn their skill sets, they get more confident," said Central Berkshire Habitat Executive Director Carolyn Valli.

Sangar experienced this firsthand as Northern Berkshire Habitat board president and project manager Paul Austin coached her on how to counter-balance the weight of a 12-foot piece of lumber, more than twice her height, on her shoulder.

Through the Lowe's Heroes community service-learning program, other teams and individuals have been able to attend construction skills clinics at the Springfield Lowe's store.

"We hope as we have women who build their skills, they can become an advocating voice for other less fortunate women," said Valli.

"The more comfortable they are with their skills, the more likely they are to come back as volunteers," Elsa Millett, Central Berkshire Habitat's homebuyer resource coordinator, said.

The two-story, five-bedroom Francis Avenue home being rehabilitated now will eventually accommodate a mother, her sons and the woman's mother.

The homeowner-to-be, said Valli, has worked her way through Habitat's comprehensive programming, including their Building for Tomorrow financial literacy program and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. In the past two years, the woman has been able to rebound from a default on her student loan, secure a job and has begun to volunteer with VITA.

The Francis Avenue home is the third Habitat project Viola Child of Pittsfield has assisted with. She's building sweat equity exchange hours toward her future Habitat home.

Child said volunteering has helped her to know what to expect with her own home, and has helped her get her own credit and finances in balance.

"It makes me feel proud," she said.

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

About Women Build ...

Participants have set a $15,000 goal to help support the Women Build program. Members will be at the Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market this Saturday selling Mother's Day cards to benefit the program. Donors who make a $30 contribution or more will also receive a T-shirt.

To volunteer or donate to this project, call Nicole, the Habitat volunteer coordinator at 413-442-3181, or email

For more information on Women Build in the Berkshires, visit


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