Robyn Raphael-Dynan and her mom, Beverly Raphael Altman, visit a project site of their construction company. They are also co-chairs of Women Build, Habitat for Humanity’s all-female project this month. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Joyce Reingold
Robyn Raphael-Dynan knows that she and her friends and family are the lucky ones.
“For as long as I can remember, all of our Mother’s Days are so easy for us,” she says. “It’s what can we do to relax that day. Our husbands make it nice. Our kids do something special for us.”
That’s why this year, she and her mother, Beverly Raphael Altman, decided to pay their good fortune forward as co-chairs of Women Build, Habitat for Humanity of South Palm Beach County’s third annual all-female build-a-thon, May 9-11.
The mother and daughter from Boca Raton are smashing fundraising records to make the dream of homeownership a reality for another mother and daughter, Ilomane Brivaus and Jessie Demesmin. By late April they had raised $215,350, a 50 percent increase over last year.
“This is really about empowered women and making a difference in our community,” says Kari Oeltjen, vice president and chief development officer of Habitat for Humanity of South Palm Beach County.
“We already have 193 women — and we’re growing every day — who are actually raising the funds to purchase the construction materials for the Habitat partner family, who happen to be an incredible mother and daughter who are hardworking. And we have incredible mother and daughter co-chairs who are also leading the way and are very hardworking.
“And so, the culmination of this is really about women transforming communities through harnessing the power of sisterhood and getting out of the comfort zones that we’re in.”
The event will kick off May 9 as the builders don pink hard hats and raise the trusses for Brivaus and Demesmin’s Delray Beach home, which, weather willing, should take six to seven months to construct.
To earn membership in the Sisterhood of the Pink Hard Hats, each Women Build participant must raise or donate a minimum of $1,000 and then paint and hammer her way through a four-hour shift.
Professionals will be on-site supervising, and teaching volunteers how to use power tools — or to hone home repair know-how — in the skills tent.
Those are skills that Altman and Raphael-Dynan know a little something about. Altman is the president and CEO of RCC Associates, a Deerfield Beach-based general contracting firm, and Raphael-Dynan is vice president of operations.
“My late husband was a builder,” Altman says of Richard Raphael, who founded the firm in 1971. “And he was such a giving person. And even though he wasn’t in a position to be a wonderful philanthropist, he helped a lot of people in different ways. We feel like we’re personally completing the circle because it is something that he would have wanted very much to be able to be a part of.”
Besides their personal volunteer efforts, Altman and Raphael-Dynan, a Habitat for Humanity board member, donate their firm’s time and resources to build homes in the organization’s footprint of Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton.
Raphael-Dynan says she and her sister Lindsay learned from watching their parents that “it’s not about you, it’s about giving back to the community.” And as a mother now herself, she models that spirit for her two children.
“At the last house we dedicated, there was a little boy the same age as my son, and I had to keep saying to my son, ‘This is his house now. He’s never had a house. He’s never had his own room,’” she says. “You take for granted that it doesn’t even cross their mind. That’s just their normal. Without them seeing that, they would have no idea. I love that they’re getting to experience it. And when they’re a little older, I’m putting them to work.”
For Jessie, her mother has been a source of great inspiration. Intent on a better life, a 22-year-old Ilomane chanced fate by boarding a sailboat for a 10-day, sometimes treacherous passage from Haiti to Florida. Ilomane’s strength, determination and hard work as a housekeeper, now at Abbey Delray Beach, helped seed her daughter’s dreams. Today, Jessie is an oncology and neurology nurse at Delray Medical Center and is earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Florida International University.
“My mom has sacrificed so much,” Jessie says. “She always says yes.” And so, when Ilomane applied to Habitat for Humanity to become a homeowner and asked Jessie to join her, she knew it was her turn to say yes. Even so, it was not a decision she made lightly. Habitat requires partner families to log 500 hours of sweat equity before work on their own homes can begin.
“So, my favorite thing I’ve learned is that it’s a hand-up, not a handout,” Raphael-Dynan says.
“The families have to do so much sweat equity and have skin in the game to even be able to work on their own house. They have to work on other people’s houses first, which I just think is such a great message.”
“Think about that,” Oeltjen says. “That’s while you’re working a full-time job. So, you have another job that you’re taking on with Habitat. It’s set at their own pace, but typically we see it takes most people one and a half to two years to complete. And it’s also that combination of financial literacy classes. Because, if you’ve never had anybody in your entire family who’s owned a home, you don’t have anybody who can pass down that knowledge to you. …
“Our goal is to set the homeowners up for success, and we’d love nothing better than when 25, 30 years down the road, that very affordable zero-interest mortgage is paid off by the family.”
With Women Build, Ilomane and Jessie can now direct sweat equity to their own home. “Every time she leaves work she stops by the property, just to look at the area,” Jessie says of her mom. “She’s super, super excited.”
New Habitat for Humanity volunteers will learn during Women Build that they’re doing more than constructing safe and affordable housing, Oeltjen says.
“They’re really building hope for another family. One of the most impactful things is when each woman builder inscribes a message or a blessing or a wish for the family inside the home on the two-by-fours. And then as the home is constructed, and that’s put inside the walls, that stays with this family — all this love and nurturing from all the woman builders who helped create this home. That’s with that family forever.”
“It’s actually my favorite part of the whole thing,” Raphael-Dynan says. “There’s a part when you’re all sweaty, and you feel gross, and then they come around with the markers, and it kind of gives you a little rejuvenation. Everybody’s writing these nice things all over the walls, and it really does remind you exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And the homeowners are there, and they’re watching you write on the walls, and they’re saying, ‘Thank you’ and ‘God bless you.’ And it’s very moving.”
It is a blessing, Jessie says. “I really do love what they’re doing for people in the community. The little bit that you give back goes a long way and affects so many people. I’d like to encourage people to go out, to go help. … Any little thing you can do will make a huge difference in someone’s life.”
“There’s nothing like this,” Altman says. “You know, I’ve been involved for years with a lot of different philanthropies and this is so hands-on. This is not just writing a check and never meeting the people that it actually benefits. This is a process where we meet them before we ever start construction, before we ever raise one penny for Habitat, before we get all of the people who have joined us on the committee to give up their time, and then to reach out to all of their friends and family to support this.
“And all we had to say to them was, we guarantee this will be unlike any experience you’ve ever had in terms of doing something for someone else. And that’s what we’ve really gotten out of this. You can’t help but feel good about it.”
Ilomane Brivaus (l-r), Beverly Raphael Altman, Habitat for Humanity executive Kari Oeltjen, Jessie Demesmin and Robyn Raphael-Dynan are preparing to build a home for Brivaus and Demesmin. The Raphael family’s construction company will assist. Photo provided
Pink Hard Hats
For information about Women Build and Habitat for Humanity, visit www.habitatsouthpalmbeach.org.