Eric Frazier

How 3 Charlotte women and one good idea changed lives around the world

Janet Stewart (left) says the all-woman crew that built her Habitat for Humanity home in 1991 helped her make a better life for Tanita, one of her two daughters.
Janet Stewart (left) says the all-woman crew that built her Habitat for Humanity home in 1991 helped her make a better life for Tanita, one of her two daughters. Courtesy Habitat for Humanity Charlotte

Twenty-five years ago, Janet Stewart was a young single mom in desperate need of stable housing.

Every couple of years, her rent would rise and she’d have to gather up her two daughters and move. She worried that the instability dampened their optimism and hurt their focus in school.

So when she learned she’d been chosen to receive a low-cost Habitat for Humanity house, she rejoiced. Somebody with the charity said her home would be a “special project,” but that barely registered. All Stewart knew was she’d finally have a home of her own.

But when construction began on a cloudy day in May 1991, the special-ness of her project finally hit her. The crew was all women. She met plumbers, electricians, framers, many of them small business owners. A nurse swung a hammer, as did a Superior Court judge. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helped out, too. Stewart thought: “OK, this is kind of special, then.”

The all-women construction project – Habitat’s first – grew from a random conversation between three women who worked for the Habitat chapter in Charlotte. The agency had just built a house in 24 hours, recalls one of those women, Mary Nell McPherson.

She remembers chatting with then-director Susan Hancock and Darlene Jonas, then the family services coordinator, when the idea popped up.

“If we can build a house in 24 hours,” she recalls Jonas saying, “I’m sure a bunch of women could build a house.”

Hancock – now Susan Hancock Sewell – jumped on the idea. Twenty-five years later, the power of that idea has propelled it to Habitat chapters across America and in 30 countries. More than 2,400 Habitat homes have been built by all-women crews.

To mark the Women Build program’s 25th anniversary, all-women crews on Friday launched three new homes in the Lakewood neighborhood off Rozzelles Ferry Road in west Charlotte. And on Saturday, Stewart will reunite with the women who hatched the idea that built her home and birthed a global Habitat tradition.

Stewart, now 57, still lives in her Habitat house in the Belmont community off North Davidson Street. Her oldest daughter is married with three kids; her youngest is working on her master’s degree in accounting.

The home stabilized her family. And the hammer-swinging women left a deep impression.

“Especially for my daughters,” Stewart says. “I knew that whatever they wanted to do they could do it, because these women were living proof.”

At a time when we seem so bitterly divided and pessimism clouds our view of what’s possible, the notion that one idea can lift spirits and families around the world will seem a bit quaint to some.

And yet, there’s Janet. There’s her little blue house with the white trim. There’s that catch in your throat when she fights tears trying to describe everything that house meant to her family. And the tears flow anyway.

The three women whose idea made it happen can’t wait to see her again. And she can’t wait to see them.

“People really do have to embrace and be champions for the ideas they believe will make the world better,” said McPherson, now head of the Freedom School Partners charity in Charlotte.

“Because,” she added, smiling, “you never know...”

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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