The Handywoman Who’s Making It within the Bay – NBC Bay Space

If you need a cabinet fixed or a faucet installed, you might call a handyman — or, if you live near Pleasanton, you might call Jenn Webber.

“I’m really good at completing people’s ‘honey do’ lists — that aren’t getting done by their honeys,” Webber said.

On her business card, Webber identifies herself as a “handywoman.” But she acknowledges that the word doesn’t exactly roll naturally off the tongue.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

Jenn Webber’s handywoman business could have her high on a ladder drilling through brick one day, and crouched in a bathtub applying caulk the next.

“Handywoman does sound kind of weird, and handyperson sounds weird too,” she said. “I fill a role that has been primarily filled by men for a very long time.”

But that’s nothing new for Webber, who’s been playing with tools and building things since she was a kid. As a high school graduation present, her family bought her a set of tools all her own, she said — and with good reason.

“My dad would continually find his tools in my bedroom and be all upset about it,” she confessed.

After a few years working on staff at Habitat for Humanity, Webber decided she wanted to join the Navy — and break some barriers along the way.

“I walked into a recruiter’s office and I said: ‘I want to join the Navy, and I want a job in construction,'” she recalled. “And they said: ‘Ugh, females can’t be Seabees.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s not true — I’ve done my research. This is the job I want, and I’m not leaving until I get this job.'”

Two U.S. Navy recruits in light blue uniform shirts, wearing caps that say "Navy" on them.

Courtesy: Jenn Webber

Jenn Webber, left, pictured at the U.S. Navy training camp where she trained to become a Seabee, a member of the Navy’s Construction Battalions.

The Seabees, a word that comes from the acronym “C.B.,” are the Construction Battalions — a division of the Navy that only began allowing women to serve equally among the men in its ranks in 1994. Webber’s persistence paid off, and after several trips to her local recruitment office, she was accepted into the Navy in 2000, trained as a Seabees Engineering Aide, and traveled the world to build facilities on U.S. Naval bases from England to Japan.

“Out in the field, kind of doing the math behind the building,” she said. “And learning a lot about teamwork and leadership and solving the problem without saying, ‘Ugh, I can’t do it.'”

Several people gathered in Navy dress uniforms in front of a white one-story building.

Courtesy: Jenn Webber

Webber, center, pictured in her Navy dress uniform, at the completion of a construction project she volunteered to work on in England.

The Seabees’ motto is “Can Do!” — and Webber said she summoned that problem solving spirit again, years later, when a divorce left her raising two growing boys on a single income.

“Divorce just kind of splits your life in half,” she said. “I had this life that I was building, and then it just stopped.”

Webber moved back home to Pleasanton with her kids, and took a job designing exhibits for the East Bay Regional Parks District — a rare opportunity to use both her visual design skills and her construction experience, she said.

But even with a full-time job, Webber said she found herself living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with her two pre-teen sons and some unruly neighbors. For a moment, she said, she thought about leaving Pleasanton. But only for a moment.

A picnic table with a rotating panel that opens to reveal illustrations and text about birds found in the park.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

Jenn Webber’s full-time job includes designing printed panels like this one for exhibits throughout the East Bay Regional Parks District.

“My boys still have several years of school left,” she said. “And the schools here are just unmatched.”

So instead of packing up to move somewhere more affordable, she talked to a friend who’s a general contractor and asked to be set up with a few odd jobs. She had no idea that the request she’d made was about to change her life.

Contractor Daniel Curtis said the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t really slow down demand for construction services — so he had plenty of odd jobs to go around.

“I want Jenn to come in and do the work that I don’t have time for, or that I know that she’s great at,” Curtis said.

Among the handful of initial customers he referred to Webber, a few posted their rave reviews on social media. Despite not having her own social media presence at all, Webber became an online sensation in her East Bay community, practically overnight.

“It’s so hard to find people you trust,” said Livermore homeowner Becca Mock. “She’s just genuine. She knows what she’s doing.”

And Mock was quick to add that it’s refreshing to have a woman wielding the power tools.

“My husband doesn’t like to read directions,” Mock lamented.

Webber doesn’t merely glance at the directions, she said. She starts on page one, every single time — even if it’s a piece of hardware she’s installed ten times before.

A woman in a plaid shirt reading an unfolded white sheet of insturctions

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

Jenn Webber doesn’t just read the directions — she lives by them. She says she starts on page one, even if it’s a piece of hardware she’s installed ten times before.

“The very first page of all sets of directions are: ‘This is what’s in the box,'” she said. “This morning, I was installing a dog door and immediately realized there were parts missing, that weren’t in the box.”

Reading the directions, she said, saved her from having to stop in middle of the project, leaving the door with a gaping hole in it. It’s lessons like that, learned through years of experience, that Webber says separate the professionals from the amateurs.

And as for the old adage that a carpenter should measure twice and cut once? Webber has a correction to make:

“You measure like five times and cut once,” she said.

Webber’s job with the parks district gives her every other Friday off, she said. Those days, plus a few evenings and weekends, have given her time to work a steady flow of small home improvement jobs.

The income’s been enough to improve her own home too: she’s been able to rent a four-bedroom house in Pleasanton, where her boys can each have their own rooms, and her mother can come stay with them.

“I feel very proud to have my family in a nice home, in a nice neighborhood, and my kids are in the schools they want to be in,” she said. “And we got to keep the great community of friends and family that we’ve made here in Pleasanton.”

Within that community, Webber still makes time for something else: she volunteers for a nonprofit called Sleep in Heavenly Peace that builds twin-sized beds for children of families in need. Daniel Curtis runs the local chapter, and Webber helps supervise an army of volunteers.

“When Jenn comes out, I don’t have to worry about some novice person drilling a drill bit through their finger,” Curtis said.

a twin bed with kids' sheets and pillows, hangs on display in a barn.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area

Sleep in Heavenly Peace builds twin-sized beds that look like this one, a sample that’s hanging in the barn where the nonprofit keeps its building supplies.

Together, in a small way, they say they’re helping to bring kids the same sort of comfort that Webber herself no longer takes for granted: the comfort of having a place that feels like home.

“If a child has a bed, it really helps a child feel like they have a space,” Curtis said.

“We think it’s ‘just’ a bed,” Webber added. “But it’s really so much more — because it’s security.”

As for her own kids, Webber is hoping to send them out into the world with a few extra skills that might help them along their journey. Her eldest, 14, has already started accompanying her on a few weekend jobs, learning all the intricate details of how to drill through different surfaces, cut wood cleanly and safely, find the right wrench for the job, and apply sticky adhesive without making a mess.

Whatever the future holds for them, she said, knowing how to build and fix things will give them an edge.

“Tech jobs are going to continually change,” she said. “But everybody’s going to need carpenters and plumbers and electricians, (and) handypeople. The trades are never going to go away.”

She’s also hoping to give them a little of the “Can-Do” spirit she learned in the Navy years ago.

“I tend to work as if it’s my house,” she said. “There’s people that just: ‘Ahh, it’s good enough.’ And I like undoing the good enough. I like making it the best.”

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