Saturday, January 22, 2000

Ursuline girls plan to build house

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One of the more pleasant and underreported findings in the field of gender research is that if you tell girls repeatedly that they can do anything, at some point they'll believe you.

        This happens regularly at Ursuline Academy.

        It's good to keep an eye on the barometer when you enter the Catholic girls' school in Blue Ash, where girls genuinely do rule. Plaid skirts twirl by in funnel clouds of energy and endeavor. Forty-pound backpacks thunder down hallways. Atmospherically and otherwise, something is always up.

        This time it just happens to be a wall chart of construction plans and time lines. This spring, the sturdy young women of Ursuline have decided to build a house.

        After hundreds of hours of pounding, painting and plumbing, they will become the second girls' school in history to construct a Habitat for Humanity house.

        Make no mistake, this is no carrying buckets of nails for somebody else to hammer or trotting back and forth for coffee. The Ursuline girls will not only provide labor for every aspect of construction, but also leadership. More than 100 girls on a dozen committees will oversee every detail of the project, including raising $40,000 to make the whole thing happen.

Family's perspective
        Even those of us who believe to our very toenails that girls can do anything feel a bit awestruck — and faint — at the thought. Let's face it, some of these girls have never hung a picture.

        Senior Jennifer Pearson entertains such concerns with amused interest. “I think Ursuline usually knows what it's capable of to the very extreme,” she says calmly. “It's just the way Ursuline does things.”

        In this case, the way Ursuline is doing things is a lesson to every other area high school. In Habitat construction, you don't build a house for a struggling family, you build it with them. Before the Ursuline girls sat down with blueprints, they sat down with the Lincoln Heights family whose home this will be.

        “They're really nice people,” says junior Aimee Doxsey, who delivered Thanksgiving dinner and arm loads of Christmas gifts to the family. “Meeting them gives the work a whole new perspective. You're not just putting up walls.

        “I've been to their apartment, which is very small, and I've seen what their life is like now,” she says. “And then you see what you can do to change that.”

        In the process, these upper-middle-class girls are learning that home is not something to be taken for granted. Nor is the construction of it.

Producers, not consumers
        There is legitimate concern that American teen-agers have far too little knowledge of How Things Work in the Real World. Cars go to mechanics for the most routine of service. Trees are planted and yards tended by landscaping services. And houses simply pop up on the horizon like a crop of wild mushrooms. One's job, as a privileged American teen-ager, is simply to consume.

        But by June, the girls at Ursuline will understand more than they ever wanted to know about footers, joists and drywall. They will see the careful planning that makes windows fit wall spaces, and mortgages fit budgets. And they will understand that, in the everyday areas of their lives, they need not just consume goods and services, but can actively produce them.

        That's what empowerment looks like.

        “It's a great experience for us, a business endeavor,” says Meghan Dugan, a senior helping oversee the entire project. “I might not have thought of business as a major in college, but after this I might. By the end of this, we'll know a lot about project management.”

        And a thousand square feet about construction. And a ton about initiative. And, most important of all, a truckload about compassion.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail her at