Women playing a critical role in home rebuilding effort since the fires

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The massive rebuilding following the October 2017 Tubbs fire has been a testosterone-intensive effort. Construction, after all, traditionally has been a male-dominated field. Ever so slowly, that’s changing. Here are the stories of three women, the headwinds they’ve faced, the obstacles they’ve overcome and the traits they share: foremost among them a powerful drive to help design, repair and build new houses so Santa Rosa-area fire survivors can return home.

Helping to raise the roof and young tradespeople

From the builders who doubted her because she was a woman, to the clients who preferred not to shake her hand because of the pigment of her skin, Letitia Hanke has endured more than her share of indignities on her way to the top of her profession.

Since 2004, she has been the CEO and owner of ARS Roofing in Santa Rosa, which completed over $3 million in business last year. “In the beginning,” said Hanke, 43, “I had to really, really prove myself.”

While other roofing companies arrived on the scene and then folded, Hanke kept chugging along building her business, along with a reputation for service and reliability. The best way forward, she thought, was to ignore the doubters and focus on the job at hand. She learned that lesson long ago the hard way.

When Hanke was 5, her father inherited a piece of property in Lake County. The family moved from Berkeley to the boondocks. It was a brutal adjustment.

“There were 7- and 8-year-old kids calling me and my brother the N-word,” Hanke recalled. She was told she was ugly and stupid because she was black. “It was bad. It was bad for years.”

Music was her salvation. When she was 8, a teacher handed her a trumpet. Her daily practice sessions, during lunch breaks, provided her with an escape from the bullies, and over time, an identity and a group of friends.

After taking night classes to graduate a year early from high school, Hanke studied music at Sonoma State University. In addition to performing at the university’s Ives Hall, she took on gigs with area bands as a jazz and blues singer.

“I wanted to be a rock star,” she said, smiling.

She detoured from that plan in 1996. To help pay her tuition, she took a receptionist job with a roofing company. Within a year, she had been promoted to office manager. Soon she had aspirations to run a company of her own. Before climbing that ladder, however, she had to climb hundreds of actual ladders. After four years working “in the field,” tearing off tar paper and shingles and installing new roofs, she passed the contractor’s exam on her first try in 2004.

That same year, she took out a small business loan and started her company. There were lean times, in the beginning.

“There were definitely some people who did not want to give her the opportunities, and respect, they might give to someone else,” said Jason Lotho, a general contractor who owns Fondare Finish Construction, and who has worked extensively with Hanke.

For his part, Lotho looks up to Hanke and her company as “a model” for his own, citing the high quality of ARS Roofing’s work and the “high character” of its owner.

While her company has worked on numerous fire-damaged homes, Hanke’s contribution to the ongoing rebuild goes beyond repaired roofs. Three years ago, in response to the chronic shortage of skilled laborers in Sonoma County, she started the NextGen Trades Academy. It’s a program run by her nonprofit, the Lime Foundation.

The 10-week course introduces young people, 16 to 24, to vocations ranging from plumbing, electrical work, and of course, roofing. All students are certified in construction safety measures. At the end of the course, they interview with local contractors.

Instead of making minimum wage somewhere, NextGen graduates are getting jobs starting between $17 and $25 an hour. Every student who’s been hired by a local contractor has gone on to work on the rebuilding effort here, said Hanke, who still remembers the music teacher who made a difference in her life when she was 8 years old.

That young girl did not grow up to be a professional musician, which is not to say Hanke is not a rock star.


Bringing order after chaotic upheaval

In the waiting area of the Windsor offices of Bravo Restoration, a tasteful diffuser emits wisps of lavender oil.

“It promotes stress relief,” said Nicole Humber, the company’s CEO. “This is a high-stress industry we’re in.”

Bravo helps people get back into homes damaged by smoke, fire and water, as evidenced by the company’s logo, which features each of those elements.

“I couldn’t figure out how to get mold in the logo,” quipped Humber, a mother of two boys, 9 and 7.

She has made a career of soothing people, bringing order to their lives. That makes sense, considering she spent much of her childhood moving from town to town — Tracy, Stockton, Manteca and Lodi, to name a few — with her father and two younger brothers.

“I was the babysitter and the breakfast maker,” she recalled. She grew up wanting to be a helper and a fixer as a police officer, lawyer or social worker.

Quite by accident, she found a career which fulfils that need. As a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College in 2005, Humber landed a receptionist job at a restoration company. Like Hanke, she wasn’t a receptionist for long. Competent, curious and tireless, she quickly moved up the ladder. Eight years ago, a former co-worker asked her to join him at his new venture, Bravo Restoration. She jumped at the chance.

Five years later, Humber bought him out.

She estimated that Bravo restored 100 or so homes damaged by the Tubbs blaze nearly two years ago. The company also was busy during February’s historic flooding along the lower Russian River communities.

What is it about restoration that’s most appealing to her?

“We all have a sanctuary, a place we go to where we can be our true selves,” she said, “and generally that’s our homes.”

Returning people to that haven, after they’ve been displaced by fire or rising water is her passion and life’s work. In pursuing it, she tries to strike a balance between projecting strength, and not coming on too strong that clients or co-workers find it off-putting.

“You can be strong and still be kind,” she said. It’s a balancing act male CEOs don’t have to worry about.

“Being a female in construction is hard,” said Kai Payne, a project manager at Bravo, who recently entered a room with one of the company’s technicians. They were greeted by clients, who directed their questions to the technician, assuming he was the project manager.

Humber recalled a moment at a training conference in April. At the end of one session, attendees dispersed into different groups: for salespeople, project managers and owners. A man walking alongside her asked, “Are you headed to the sales segment?”

“I’m an owner,” she told him. “I’m heading there.”

Inspired by Humber’s willingness to pursue her own dreams, Payne recently signed a contract with the U.S. Navy, where she hopes to serve as a surface warfare officer. The news was bittersweet to Humber, who congratulated Payne, then added, “I empowered you so damn much that you’re leaving?”

Payne will be around for the company’s third anniversary celebration Monday. There will be food, beer from Barrel Brothers — an office park neighbor — and a play area for kids.

“I know it’s the Monday before the Fourth of July and the timing is terrible,” the boss said. “But it’s our anniversary, and we’re having a damn ribbon-cutting.”


Self-taught designer ‘with a vision’

When Evangeline “Eva” Kunkle said she grew up in construction, she meant it literally: the two homes her family moved into were condemned — fixer-uppers that her father, a contractor, was incessantly fixing.

Now 42, she still has a drawing she made when she was 6, a layout of her ideal home, “including the garden,” she said. In high school, she rearranged or painted her bedroom at least once a month.

She is now the principal designer for San Rafael-based G Family Construction. That, at least, is her title on the company’s website. Another way to describe her, her co-worker husband, Aaron, said is a “bad-ass with a vision.”

“She has this amazing gift for taking a homeowner’s thoughts,” said their colleague, Aric Lapera, “and making them come to life.”

Eva Kunkle is a highly respected, successful and self-taught designer. She was 20 when she married Aaron and 22 when she gave birth to the first of their five sons. The family lives in a remodeled schoolhouse in Graton. Almost immediately after the October 2017 wildfires, she had what her husband described as “a vision.”

“We both knew this was a moment our skills and gifts were needed,” Eva Kunkle recalled. “We felt compelled to serve, to show up and do the best, and most, we could.”

That service has consisted of giving people who lost their homes a reasonably priced, custom alternative to the “generic” houses they would otherwise have to choose from, buildings that “had no heart, and did not represent them,” she said.

In addition to heart, many of the homes she’s designing feature such flourishes as radiant heating, polished concrete floors, standing seam roofs and other features her husband called “rad.”

How are they able to build these custom homes for the reasonable prices they’re charging?

The answer is simple: “We just make less,” she said.

While she’s not an architect, she frequently sees clients who’ve been working with an architect for months, or years, and spent tens of thousands of dollars, but want to have those plans redone. She’s noticed many of those plans — OK, all of them — were drawn by male architects.

One of her strengths, she said, is that she’s a mother who understands the flow a design needs to have, “what works and what doesn’t work, and why we don’t want to put that there because it’s dangerous.”

There can be tension between her “very strong vision” for a project, and the opinions of other team members, including husband Aaron.

She welcomes those opinions, listens respectfully and strives to make her colleagues “see that we’re all part of a team.”

“But at the end of the day,” she said, “they need to do what I say.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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