by Todd Cohen
photographs by Jillian Clark
Raleigh artist Meredith Kittrell likes to roll up her sleeves, create something new, and make a difference. So in 2002, when she learned about the annual Holiday Home Tour of Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, she volunteered to work on the tour. Since then, she has organized and chaired the event. She also served for seven years on Habitat’s board of directors and now serves on its advisory board.
Four years ago, she helped organize Women Build, a Wake Habitat effort modeled on a national Habitat initiative that brings women together to raise funds and build homes. The group has since built eight homes for local families. This year – Wake Habitat’s 30th anniversary – Women Build is building two Habitat homes. Women are raising all the money for the project and have been volunteering Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays since September to build the homes, which should be complete in December.
“I like the hands-on work, the physical nailing of the roof or the foundation-building,” says Kittrell, a painter who will be 57 November 13 and is a co-owner of Roundabout Art Collective, a gallery on Oberlin Road. “I’ve learned to put up vinyl siding and windows. Oftentimes, you’re standing and nailing right beside the homeowner you’re actually building the house for. That’s a different kind of giving, you learn. It’s personal giving.”
Born and raised in Wilmington, Del., Kittrell majored in art history and psychology at Hollins College (now Hollins University), worked as a travel agent, started her own home-organizing business, and has worked for many years as an artist. She is married to Gilliam Kittrell, co-owner of Hodge & Kittrell Sotheby’s International Realty. They have two sons. Bennett, 26, is a utility forester in Charlotte for Utilifor, and Robert, 23, is a fisheries biologist at the Armstrong State Fish Hatchery near Spruce Pine.
TC: How did Women Build get started?
MK: It was another way to get women involved with Habitat in leadership roles, and to learn new skills and get out of their comfort zone.
In October, Women Build held its inaugural “She Nailed It! Build Day” to raise money and get women involved in building homes. What was its genesis?
There’s a community of givers out there and we just have to figure out a way of tapping into that charitable world. It was a one-day collective giving day. We came together as women.
What draws you to Habitat?
When we’re building a house, it helps the homeowner and the community and the individual person, because they get hands-on physical experience helping someone get a roof over their head. The motto of Habitat is, “It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.” In my charitable work, I like action. That is what Habitat is all about.
Who were your parents?
My mother was Pat Wood. She was an interior decorator. My father was Bernard Felch. He was a professor of art and an artist. He was the original Renaissance man. He worked in all media: He was a painter – watercolor, oils; he carved marble; he made pottery; he played music. That’s where I got my artistic leanings.
What did you learn from them?
I was youngest of three girls. My dad did not like the words, “I can’t.” That probably is why I like Habitat. Oftentimes people will say, “I can’t hammer; I can’t build.” Where did we learn we can’t do things? From my mom, I learned organization and joie de vivre.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always envisioned something in the creative realm. I think that comes from learning at an early age that the world around you is very interesting and you need to find out all about it.
What do you like about volunteer work?
As we age, we realize that energy and time are precious. And they’re limited entities. We need to focus on what is really important to us.
Have you contributed your skills as a painter to Habitat?
I help paint interiors. I might be better at painting on canvas than on walls, because I don’t stay in the lines. I’m an artist; we don’t like to stay in the lines.
Who are your heroes?
People who get out there and get their hands dirty and make a difference.
Who do you admire in Raleigh?
I’ve lived in Raleigh since 1980. Since I moved here, the charitable world in Raleigh has grown exponentially. I just love that. There are so many people working towards a better community. It makes you feel much better about the place you live.
What inspires you?
All of God’s creation is inspiration, as long as we keep our eyes open to it.
What does philanthropy mean to you?
Opening your heart, mind, soul, and hands to people who have less.
What do you do for fun?
Fun is every day, right there in front of you. I love friends and walking and painting. I like being around people.
What are you reading?
All the Light We Cannot See, a novel by Anthony Doerr about a blind girl in World War II and how she navigates in Paris without seeing it. It’s fascinating because I’m a visual person.
Where do you like to go for vacations?
A lot of times our vacations revolve around the outdoors and fishing. My husband makes fly rods, and my son, Robert, ties flies.
What is your philosophy of life?
Enjoy what’s there before you, in the moment you’re in.