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Programs & Initiatives

Nell's Story

First Published 2010

By Nell Perry Bovender

No one could have ever convinced me that I would spend the opening years of my 50s volunteering to roof houses. I’m not athletic. I’m too heavy.  Heck, I’m not really that fond of heights.

But I appear before you today, at 57, confident in my skills at roofing houses – too many to count, actually, but including three in Katrina-ravaged Mississippi. I can also tell you I live my life buoyed by the strongest friendships I have experienced in my life – thanks to roofing.

Roofing, we have learned, is the equivalent of our great-grandmothers’ quilting bee. Roofing is the shared hands-on skill; our voices provide the intimacy, the laughter, the strength that has become The Women Roofers.

We formed accidentally but out of the affirmation of our mentor who said, in so many words, “Yes, you can.” 

In 2002, my new job as coordinator, and sole employee, of Rutherford Housing Partnership involved matching volunteers to needed repair jobs for low-income homeowners. I convinced my Sunday school class to help during that fall’s Week of Caring. Their project? Under the direction of a veteran roofing repair volunteer (the mentor we now refer to as Bossman Billy) they would repair the leaky roof of a house.

But only three showed up – and they were women. Lori Herrick, one of those three, fully expected Billy to say something to the effect of, “Well, we’ll have to try another day when we get some REAL help.” Nope. According to Herrick, “He said, ‘Let’s get to work’ without giving a second thought to the fact that we were women who had no clue what to do.”

Susie Kernodle, another of those first Women Roofers, is also a seamstress. She caught on quickly. “I realized it’s no different from laying out a dress pattern. You just use different tools.”

The more Herrick and Kernodle talked about their roofing experience, the more the idea of an all-female crew formed.  Roof after roof, the enthusiasm spread, until now 64 women and a few guys get the email announcements about when the next project will begin.

“Women do a lot in the community and the schools,” said Terri Wells, “but it’s not often this kind of physical work. I like the challenge of doing something I’ve never done before.”

I sit sort of in the middle of the age range. Our oldest regular participant is 75. We’ve celebrated a 30th, 40th and two 60th birthdays on roofs. Among us are social workers, teachers, a pharmacist, nurses, a real estate appraiser, a minister. Many are retired; many are still raising families. At least one is a Habitat homeowner we met when we roofed her house. She joins us whenever she can.

We’re sort of famous locally. We are the crew that is called in when the local Habitat houses are ready for roofing (two or three a year), and we repair three or four each year for Rutherford Housing Partnership. We still work under the direction of our male leader, but, to be honest, a couple of summers back, when injury prevented him from climbing onto roofs, we completed one – start to finish – on our own.

It was an incredibly affirming experience to realize how much we knew about an enterprise that had been so utterly unavailable to us as girls growing up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ’70s. The work has profoundly affected us all.

Rutherford County is a large, rural county of about 62,000. Census 2000 data show that 10.4% of families live below the poverty level (statewide is 9%). Its unemployment rate has jockeyed for highest in the state over the last few years due to textile plant closings. People struggle with day-to-day expenses; home repairs are put on hold until it’s unsafe.

The median family income is $46,900, so the target population for RHP services is made up of those making less than $23,450. Most RHP clients receive checks of only $800 to $1,100 per month. Most RHP clients are disabled or retired adults living on fixed incomes. The most common projects tackled by RHP include repairing leaky roofs, broken windows and doors; installing hand rails and/or handicap ramps; and replacing rotten bathroom and kitchen floors.

“I don’t believe God put us here to just take up space,” said Hazel Crook. “He wants us to give back in some way to ease the struggles of others.”

Beth Archer summed it up for us all: “This is about a group of people who shared a small amount of construction skill and a great amount of love, doing the work that must be done for our fellow brothers and sisters of humankind.”

Nell Perry Bovender of Rutherfordton is a former journalist and freelance writer. She is the executive director of Rutherford Housing Partnership, which depends on the skills of the Women Roofers and other volunteer groups to provide urgently needed repairs to the homes of qualified low-income homeowners in Rutherford County.  Contact her at nbovender@yahoo.com.