Chris Oliver, left, and University of Vermont Medical Center president and COO Eileen Whalen take a break from nailing shingles on Thursday, May 11. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Hammers thwacked in the rhythm of exploding popcorn last week on the site of Essex Jct.’s first-ever Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity build.

Fourteen women leaders from the University of Vermont Medical Center, spanning roles from physicians to nurses and business administrators, approached their fourth hour onsite by the time the sun peeked through the clouds around 11 a.m. last Thursday.

Some paired off to lug large slabs of wood, winding around towering piles of dirt that outlined the home’s footprint. Others tried their hand at roofing, spreading shingles across three sheds that will serve as storage for the 57 Park St. property’s newest tenants.

It was the final leg of Habitat for Humanity’s 10th annual Women’s Build Event, a four-day affair that invites women to help construct local affordable housing with the guidance of experienced builders. More than 17,000 women were expected to volunteer at construction sites across the country.

UVM Medical Center president Eileen Whalen, donning a green baseball cap and vest to match, stood on scaffolding and listened before taking aim.

Whalen was named honorary chairwoman of the event and said Habitat’s mission “aligns beautifully” with the hospital’s goal of population health management.

“We believe that having a safe, sustainable home is one of the most important social determinants of health,” she said. “If people have a roof over their head, and they’re not worried about where their next meal is coming from, then they’re really able to participate in their own health care.”

Coinciding with National Nurses Week, the event doubled as a celebration of some of the medical field’s hardest working employees.

Jennifer Parks, left, and Lisa Goodrich haul a large wooden slab to be used in the construction of three sheds on the 57 Park St. property. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

“We’re celebrating the power of women working together to make a difference in our community,” Whalen said.

Volunteers from both Green Mountain Keurig and Lowe’s, which helped launch the Women’s Build week in 2008, also participated earlier in the week, building 38 door and window frames that will be placed once the walls are up.

Dick Shasteen, construction chairman and Habitat board member, said his team is ready to pour the footers and is waiting to hear back from his contractor.

“Then the real work starts. We’ll put the first-floor deck on, and we’ll be off and running,” he said, adding he has an aggressive goal to finish by the end of this year.

Habitat purchased the property last year after a fire destroyed the prior residence there in July 2016. The build team now plans to construct a triplex in its place while refurbishing a carriage house on the back of the property.

Four local low-income families selected by the Habitat board will soon be able to purchase the homes from Habitat at cost, or about half the market rate, through a 25- to 30-year, no-interest loan with no money down. Those payments are used to construct more homes.

  Families qualify if they make less than 60 percent of the median household income, currently about $50,000 for a family of four, yet have a stable income to pay for a mortgage. They must also demonstrate a need for the home, for reasons like living in crowded or unsafe environment.

Since the local chapter doesn’t receive funding from Habitat International, it must raise all its money locally, said David Mullin, the organization’s executive director.

The Vermont chapter keeps costs low by partnering with businesses that offer significant discounts and by sourcing most of the construction. Mullin said an average project can see upward of 300 volunteers.

Amy Vaughan lines up a nail in the roof of a shed. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Once families own a Habitat home, most end up paying less for mortgage, tax and insurance than what they were paying in rent in Chittenden County, Mullin said. Habitat homes can create stability families have often lacked in their day-to-day lives.

Soon, the selected families will join the Habitat team, since they’re expected to complete 400 hours of “sweat equity,” Mullin said.

This allows them not only to play a role in their home’s construction, but also meet the volunteers who helped make it possible.

For Mullin, who spends much of his time focused on the organization’s overhead, watching the build progress is one of his job’s biggest perks.

“I get to see these families, where they’ve come from, the conditions that they lived in, and see them through this process,” he said. “What we realize in the process is we’re not so different. We have an awful lot in common with these families.”

More importantly, Mullin said, families can build equity in a home they can one day pass off on their children.