Kay Hurst’s house loomed so empty last February without Don, her gorgeous gray-haired husband and companion who would never again pick blackberries in the yard or listen to KPBX in the kitchen.
Don, who repaired electric motors for a living, had died at age 50 in an industrial accident the summer before. Suddenly, the house they’d built together, nail by nail, wall by wall, fell silent.
Life at work was no better. Hurst was a South Hill Realtor, struggling to concentrate on work that now seemed pointless.
But one gray February day Kay Hurst’s life began to change.
A co-worker returned to the office after a meeting about Habitat for Humanity’s Women’s House. “You gotta go,” she told Hurst. “They’re in serious trouble. They’re really nice and they mean well, but they don’t have a clue.”
Hurst wasn’t hard to convince. A loosely organized group of Spokane women was planning to build a duplex on the corner of Fourth and Haven in the East Central neighborhood. Two women, single mothers like Hurst had been before she’d met Don, would buy the houses through sweat equity and interest-free mortgages.
“It seemed like I could make a contribution,” Hurst said. “I had the knowledge they were lacking.”
Soon Hurst was volunteering. Ground was broken in May and by the end of July, she had quit her job to help supervise construction.
The Women’s House, with a list of 743 volunteers, has been a catalyst for change. Women who never held a hammer before have learned to pound a nail, straight and true, by a day’s end. Women frightened to stand on a roof have worked up their courage and discovered not only a new view, but also new possibilities. Others, like Kay Hurst, have transformed loss into gritty compassion.
“Almost to a woman, they arrive saying, ‘I can’t do that,’ and by the end of the day, they are doing it,” Hurst said.
Hurst’s own confidence, however, has rarely wavered. She grew up hammering and sawing on the house her parents built.
One day when she was 11, Hurst arrived home to find her mother tearing down a bedroom wall. Her mother had grown tired of waiting for her father to tackle the job of remodeling two bedrooms into a new game room. Hurst grabbed a hammer and dove in.
By the time her astonished father arrived home that night, Hurst had learned a life lesson: Women can do anything.
“It just made me fearless,” she said, now 54. “It was a gift from my mother.”
Each morning, Hurst teaches a new crew of volunteers to tackle the work. One week they’re framing the windows. Another week they’re hammering vinyl siding to the exterior walls.
“I feel like I’m giving them what my mother gave me,” Hurst said. “The courage to try this.”
Mary Ellen Myrene, a 52-year-old free-lance writer, leaned against a shovel at the Habitat site recently and said, “I’ve done nothing like this in my life.”
Hurst taught her to roof this summer. Myrene not only conquered her fear of heights, she now plans to reroof her own house.
“Hurst’s great,” Myrene said. “She’s really good about explaining things and about having people do things they’re likely to succeed at.”
All kinds of women have volunteered to help build the Habitat house. They range in age from 14 to 75, from poor to affluent. They’re Christians and secular humanists, feminists and conservatives. They come from all occupations, wearing everything from diamond earrings to tattered jeans.
“One day we had a trauma surgeon sweeping sawdust off the roof,” Hurst said.
One rainy afternoon in late summer, a Gonzaga University French professor, Joyce Loland, who had never tackled anything beyond painting and wallpapering, worked alongside Theresa Hale, whose family has been awarded another Habitat house.
Hale teased Loland. “She’s improved nail-wise,” Hale said. “The nails are actually going into the wood.”
The vast majority of the work on this house will be done by women. But occasionally, it’s been difficult to find enough women with the proper technical skills. A male plumbing contractor laid the original water and sewer lines. Since then, licensed women plumbers have been found to install the fixtures.
Hurst has discovered some differences between male and female construction sites. Women talk more, posture less. No one appoints herself “the boss”; leaders gradually emerge.
On this site, the crews take morning cookie breaks, arrange flowers in the urinal, and keep the landscape incredibly clean. “We’re women; we’re tidy!” Hurst said.
And when they’ve finished a shift, the women pick up marking pens and write loving messages on the studs.
“Joy to all who enter,” wrote a woman named Pat on Sept. 29. “God bless this home and all who dwell therein,” wrote Jean Huber on Oct. 5.
At the end of the day, almost all of the women, who have not only worked hard for free but usually contributed $100 apiece, stop to thank Hurst for the opportunity to work on the house.
“I think that’s just incredible,” Hurst said.
Before Mary Siegel and Shirley Watson can move their families into the new duplex this winter, Hurst may be gone. She’s selling the house overlooking Hangman Creek that she and Don built and moving to Gulf Port, Miss., where she’ll be closer to her family.
The move will be a risk, and an adventure.
Hurst’s tools are too expensive to move. She’s already sold them.
No matter, Hurst said. “My son’s father-in-law has a whole garage full of tools. I figure I can teach him how to use them.”
On a recent day off from the construction, she sat in a blue upholstered chair next to the brick fireplace she and Don built and thought of what the Habitat house has meant to her.
Her eyes filled with tears.
“I remember a lot of the happy times with Don doing this,” she said softly. “I know what it’s meant to me to have this house, and I’d like to allow those two women to have a house, too.”
She’s convinced the Women’s House didn’t need her nearly so much as she needed it. Two blocks down from the New Hope Baptist Church on a muddy construction site dusted by golden leaves, Kay Hurst found solace.
“I know I’m a natural optimist,” she said. “I know I’m pretty selfreliant. When people say to me, ‘You’re so brave,’ I say, ‘There really are no choices.’ You could lay down and pull the covers over your head, I suppose. But you say, ‘This is what you’ve got to do,’ and you get on with it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Habitat for Humanity’s Women’s House continues to need volunteers and donors willing to contribute $100 apiece. If you can help, call the Habitat office at 534-2552.