Photo by James BunoanThe Saturday-afternoon quiet of the Santa Ana neighborhood is broken by the dull knock of nails being driven into a plywood roof by a couple of high school girls in ponytails. They finish the job, carrying their hammers—swinging them actually—as they climb off the roof, giggling.

The Miller-time fantasy of some horny construction worker?

Maybe. But it's also Women Build, a project of Habitat for Humanity, the mostly volunteer organization that builds homes for those who don't have them. This is the second Orange County house the women have built.

It was started 12 years ago by Linda Fuller—who co-founded Habitat with husband Millard Fuller—who noticed only a smattering of women at Habitat construction sites. Women Build offers a friendly atmosphere and hands-on training that allows women to gain confidence as well as bond with one another. It's kind of like Lilith Fair with power tools. The program has seen Habitat's female volunteer base, not to mention the number of female crew leaders, steadily grow.

"A year ago, only one Orange County Habitat crew leader was a woman,"Women Build chairwoman Mary Ann O'Connell says. "Now there are at least 13."

Martha Bagnall is proud to say she was first. A New York native, Bagnall is crew leader on this Santa Ana project. She has been with Habitat for a year and a half, with projects in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana under her tool belt, but she's still learning. It was only recently that she learned to lay cement roof tiles.

When she started, "I followed a crew leader around on Saturdays, seeing how walls were put together, learning as I went. I grew up in Manhattan, so the only building I saw was construction workers building 50-story high-rises."

Martha says Habitat has allowed her, a lab worker, to work under open skies. As the sun beats down on her brown arms and a light breeze rustles her T-shirt, she smiles. Behind her, a group of high schoolers finishes nailing on a roof. They stand, all of them sweating, all of them smiling, one big Kumbaya moment.

With all these feel-good moments, it's probably not surprising that the volunteers keep in contact off-site. "I've actually moved in with one of them," says Martha. "I'm not home very much, so I told her I needed cheap rent, and that was it. Through Habitat, I've gotten new housing also."

A few hours and some narrowly missed smashed thumbs later, people start to leave together. Habitat workers reach out to thank volunteers. People slowly descend from the roofs and pick up their sweat shirts and soda cans. The soft dirt where Martha stood in her construction boots and where halted wheelbarrows still hold two-by-fours will soon be replaced with green grass and play toys.

"I can use the skills I learn here to repair my house," she says. "If I ever own a house."

For more information, call the Santa Ana Habitat for Humanity at (714) 434-6200.


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