Building women’s skills by helping low-income women repair their homes

Summer Parham, 16, an 11th grader from A. Philip Randolph Career and Technical High School, thinks most women are afraid of grabbing power-tools to repair or renovate their own homes.

“They think it’s a job just for men, but it’s not. It’s kind of easy, pretty easy,” Parham said, outside of a home she and her friend Juanita Marrero, 15, were helping repair. “And anything a man can do, a female can do.”

Parham and Marrero are in the construction program at their school, and this past weekend they joined volunteers and contractors at Rebuilding Together Philadelphia’s (RTP) fall block build, with the goal of renovating 10 homes on the 2300 and 2200 block of North Fairhill Street. For the first time, the nonprofit decided to have an all-woman work day on Saturday, in two houses owned by women. The idea of She Builds, RTP’s executive director Stefanie Fleischer Seldin said, was to empower female volunteers and homeowners.

“Two thirds of our homeowners are women so we want them to learn how to do the work, by also helping women in need,” said Seldin, whose organization repairs 75 homes owned by low-income families in Philadelphia per year.

On Saturday afternoon, a group of women were working on Dawn Anderson’s rowhouse. Seven were painting the walls of the first and second floor white, and three others were laying a new floor in the kitchen. “They are like angels,” Anderson, 42, said.

“My clients are mostly women, single mothers very much so, because they don’t mind having me in the house. I’m not a threat,” Annabella Wood, 57, owner of Belle’s Buildings Handywoman Service, told PlanPhilly. She started her company in 1996, and thinks there’s a need for more women in the construction industry. “A lot of women at this point don’t want people that are stronger that they are in their house with them, with nobody else there. That is a worry and a concern.”

Cindy Ariel, 57, owner of Think Outside the Toolbox, another local handywoman company, said although she gets male clients, women tell her they feel more comfortable with her.

“And in some ways, I think we are better at it,” Ariel said.  “We have attention to detail, we really care, we clean up after ourselves, and if we are remodeling a kitchen, we know you need a place to put your hot trays when you are bringing them out of the oven.”

According to the National Association of Women in Construction’s website, in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 8.9 percent of the people working in the construction industry were women (872,000).

Rose Gray, director of Development and senior vice president for Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, said there should be more. “Women need to have consistent work and construction is a really good trade, plus they can keep their own houses up,” Gray said on Friday, after an opening ceremony held outside the homes on Friday.   

“We have a real need to support young girls, and show them that the construction industry has an incredible amount of power,” Councilwoman Helen Gym told PlanPhilly during the block build. “Knowing the skills can give them independence”.

Parham and Marrero know about that. They said learning how to build has given them confidence.

“If we get a home, instead of having to pay someone thousands of dollars to do it, we can do it ourselves,” Parham said. “And you don’t always have to lift heavy things. If a woman knows how to do plumbing, and drywall, and electric, I believe you can build yourself a mansion.” 

    • Annabella Wood, 57, (in red) installing new floor on Dawn Anderson’s kitchen, with full-time handywoman Kelly Vincent, 42, and volunteer Kaylin Viales, 23 | Catalina Jaramillo / PlanPhilly
      Annabella Wood, 57, (in red) installing new floor on Dawn Anderson’s kitchen, with full-time handywoman Kelly Vincent, 42, and volunteer Kaylin Viales, 23 | Catalina Jaramillo / PlanPhilly

About the author

Catalina Jaramillo, Reporter

Catalina Jaramillo covers environment and sustainability for PlanPhilly and WHYY. She tells stories on how climate change, pollution, and policies regulating air, water, land, energy, food and waste affect residents on their everyday lives. She’s also interested in stories about nature and how people interact with it. Before joining WHYY, she wrote and produced stories for publications in New York City, Mexico and Chile. She has taught journalism in Chile and at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in NYC. She has been a Metcalf and a Fulbright fellow, and is a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism. She was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, and has been living in Philadelphia since 2014, in front of Norris Square Park, in Kensington. She tweets as @cjaramillo and you can email her in English or Spanish at

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