UMass Student Roots Herself Building Homes for Others

Graduate Student Jana Lembke grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina watching others working with their hands. “My father and grandfather have built things, and I thought, I want to learn that, too.”   After seeing her neighbors participate in Habitat builds, she knew she wanted to try building with Habitat someday.

“Someday” came this summer, when Lembke found the Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity chapter online. She wanted a project that would both get her out into her new community and push her to try new things. “There were lots of reasons to choose to volunteer with Habitat,” she said. “I’m in my office a lot. I wanted to do something physical and I’m very social, so I wanted to meet people. I think that it has the potential to help me develop roots— I feel more connected participating with a regular activity over time.”

Lembke said the Pioneer Valley Habitat Easthampton build site on East Street appealed because, “I saw that a new project was just starting up, and so I could see the project from the beginning, through the building process, to the end, and be part of it along the way.”

“Then, when I got on the site, everyone was so nice and so welcoming!” It didn’t take long working alongside Habitat volunteer site supervisor Elle VanDermark, and Habitat Intern Rommel Cordova-Fiori, before she, too, was using the power tools.

Jana Lembke use power tool

Jana Lembke use power tool

“It was really confidence-building. I had never used a miter saw, or a hammer.  Everyone was willing to teach me. It was, ‘You’re gonna do this with me.’ They each were willing to teach, rather than take over. It was a way to expand myself. The big miter saw—I watched a lot of other people use it. Then, I got a little closer, and then, I did it.”

It wasn’t until Lembke was on the East Street site that she learned the home she was helping to build was the first Pioneer Valley Habitat WomenBuild project. WomenBuild projects are meant to involve more women in Habitat’s construction effort, which increases the number of houses that can be built. Lembke is working on a new building designed by Edy Ambroz and Rachel Stevens, to be a green, “net-zero” energy efficient home. It was also welcome news that the home is also designed to be universally accessible for wheelchairs. That makes the project even better in Lembke’s eyes.

She likes the fact that Pioneer Valley Habitat is teaching women construction skills. “I think the WomenBuild concept is great. It’s rewarding to see people learn.” Though she’s worn a prosthetic leg since birth due to a birth defect, she’s never let that slow her down. “My parents have always encouraged me to do anything and everything I wanted to try. It’s never been a barrier.” As well as wielding a hammer for Habitat, Lembke is also a rock-climbing regular at Central Rock Gym.

She met her fiancé Nate online two years ago —she was new to the area and put out a call for someone to explore the region with her. She’s plunged right into exploring the Pioneer Valley since moving from Raleigh for graduate school at University of Massachusetts.

She’s got a unique specialty in Social Psychology as a grad student: she studies how newlywed couples grow and communicate in the early years of marriage. And as someone who likes to investigate relationships, she hasn’t shied away from putting what she’s learned into practice in her own relationships.

She keeps an eye out for activities that she could do with her fiancé, finding ways that would help them explore themselves. It gives them a chance to see how they evolve as a couple, and how they are in the world, together as a couple.

She says it’s nice to go to the East Street build with Nate. While it’s nice to meet new people, it’s also nice to have the building experience together. “I think volunteering can enrich the relationship as part of the things (couples) do together.”

L-R, Kate, Marissa, Elle VanDermark, Jana Lembke, Rommel Cordova-Fiori

L-R, Kate, Marissa, Elle VanDermark, Jana Lembke, Rommel Cordova-Fiori

“We’d like to build our own house. I’m interested in how people learn, and I like the idea of shared resources. It’s good to see ways to make a home energy efficient and think about how you can do that in your own home and help friends with theirs. Building on a Habitat house is a great introduction to learning about that.”

Volunteering with Habitat helps others put down roots in the community too.

Want to volunteer with Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity? Contact Janet Bordwin Kannel,, or phone the office 413-586-5430, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Elle VanDermark demonstrates as Jana and Kate watch

Elle VanDermark demonstrates as Jana and Kate watch

Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity (PVHH) serves Hampshire and Franklin Counties; we seek to eliminate homelessness and substandard housing by making decent affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action for all people. PVHH builds homes with volunteer labor and donations of material, supplies, land, and services. PVHH then sells each home with a no-interest mortgage to a low-income family. The family becomes an active Habitat partner contributing many hours of sweat equity during the construction of their home. Since 1989, nearly three dozen families have become homeowners in the valley through Habitat's work.