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Off the Clock: The Surprising Compatibility of Social Work and Remodeling

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Off the Clock: The Surprising Compatibility of Social Work and Remodeling

To create a path into the trades for women, Hope Renovations runs training programs for free


By James F. McClister May 6, 2021
Nora Spencer Hope Renovations Off the Clock
This article first appeared in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of Pro Remodeler.

Nora El-Khouri Spencer, who owns Hope Renovations, wasn’t born into remodeling. Her parents weren’t even handy. Though, they were kind and generous—which makes sense, knowing Nora and her business, an operation that helps train and find remodeling jobs for underprivileged women. 

Most people start in social work and later move into a corporate position—for Spencer, it was a second career. After years in corporate positions, first in advertising and then recruiting, Nora wanted to find a better way to give back. With her master's in social work and drive to facilitate change in her North Carolina community, she launched Hope Renovations, a combination training center for underprivileged women and remodeling business that provides discounted services to those in need of universal design modifications.

After only a year in operation, more than a dozen young women have graduated from Hope's training operation (complete with a handful of certifications) and another cohort is already underway. In the inaugural episode of Pro Remodeler's interview series "Off The Clock," Nora shares her story and the story of Hope Renovations. Watch the video below to learn more. 

Handywoman 

Nora’s parents were never handy—she is. “There was a window in my college dorm room with this thin strip of the window sill,” says Nora. “It occurred to me to make it bigger.” A plank of wood and some work later and she had something of a shelf.

Not born to it, Nora took to remodeling like she was, making small home improvement projects a personal habit—which became a more serious endeavor after she and her husband purchased their first investment property. “I went to work on it.” 

Finding Hope 

For a long while, Nora worked at Lowe’s, first in advertising and later in recruiting. “It was a great way to get familiar with the products and categories,” she says. It was also a good way to get tools as remodeling turned into her side hustle. “The employee discount was generous.” 

But after years of Lowe’s (and later IBM), her commitment to a corporate career waned. “I got tired of giving everything I had to a company’s bottom line.” Instead, she wanted to give back. 

During her years in corporate HR, Nora had earned her Master of Social Work (MSW). She imagined a future in which she would marry business with social work. However, how to do it wasn’t as certain as the need to. 

“An internship during grad school at a homeless shelter got my wheels turning.” She engaged with the women staying at the shelter—got to know them enough to ask questions like: ever considered a job in remodeling? “The thought had never occurred to them,” she says. “They liked working with their hands but thought construction ‘a man’s job.’” 

Eventually, something clicked: a remodeling business that would also facilitate the training and job placement of underprivileged women. 

On-Going Mission 

After two years of chasing partners and then acquiring a training workshop through nothing short of serendipity, Hope Renovations was realized and officially launched in July 2020. “One of our founding partners, Fitch Lumber, just happened to have this old door manufacturing space it was using for storage,” she recalls. “I remember Miles Fitch showing us the place and profusely apologizing for all the boxes and stuff that had built up over the years. But I knew right away it was perfect.” 

Half of Hope Renovations is the renovations—the majority of which are universal design updates for people with disabilities and serious illnesses, typically older people, done at a discount or totally free of charge. The other part, the smaller part, is anything for anyone. “A kitchen remodel, bathroom, new floors, paint, windows—whatever.” The revenue generated through those jobs funds discounted work.

The other half is training and job placement. Over 10 weeks, using HBI’s Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training program, Hope exposes trainees to a wide array of skills and opportunities for certification. “The intention is to get our graduates into an apprenticeship or job somewhere in the industry,” she says. “We pack in as many certifications as we can, including OSHA 10, first-aid, CPR, and fire safety.” 

Social Work Lens

But what’s especially unique about Hope Renovations is the social work. The organization has four MSWs on staff, including the construction supervisor. It shapes how they approach training and employment.  

“We spend a lot of time talking about soft skills—conflict resolution and self-care. We also deal with a lot of underlying mental health issues that have to be dealt with,” she says. “We want to address these issues through a social work lens while they’re in our program so that when they come out, they can be not only the best employee they can be for an employer but that they can be better for themselves.”  


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