The barn is filled with the sounds of tools at work, grinding and hammering. On the walls hang posters; one is a copy of the famous World War II poster, “We Can Do It.” Rosie the Riveter, her bicep bulging with hard muscle, watches as her twenty-first century descendants experience a day in a woodworker’s trade. Other items adorn the walls: photos of previous classes, along with samples of handiwork, including tables, cabinets, and bird houses. Overall, it is pretty clean for a workshop, but amidst the noise and sawdust, there is much focus and concentration.
Welcome to the woodshop of Girls at Work, Incorporated, a nonprofit organization located in New Hampshire that empowers girls and women by teaching the art of woodworking, and founded by Elaine Hamel. There are 10 girls from the Exeter Teen Outlook Center in today’s class, some wearing jeans, other in capris; all are focused on today’s project: building shelves. In fully equipped workstations, each girl is carefully taking measurements-twice-before cutting. While keeping a watchful eye on everyone, Elaine still gives her full attention to each girl.
One of the girls, 12 year old Reiley McLaughlin, says, “It’s pretty fun to be able to make something. [We learn to] drill a hole before the screws go in, sand things before putting them together.” While she would not make woodworking a career, Reiley sums her experience this way: “Girls can do anything.” Susan Ratnoff, an invited guest, concurs. “They’re pretty impressive. They’ve been here two and a half hours, and they look confident, attentive, and proud. It’s wonderful to watch.” Shannon Rotthoff a grant writer and board member of Girls At Work, Inc., heard about the program a couple of years ago, and thought it would do her eight year old daughter some good. “She had had a rough year at school. And at first, she was a bit intimidated and self-conscious” in the woodworking class. But at the end of the class, Shannon says the program made her daughter more confident. “It made a difference in one day! It was really terrific.”
The seeds for Girls at Work, Inc. were planted years ago, when Elaine took advantage of new careers that were opening up for women. She entered into the trades in the early 80’s as a laborer during the condominium boom, and worked briefly for a painter but found she needed a different challenge. Elaine moved on to work with a general contractor with the desire to learn all she could about construction. Eventually, she went out on her own, starting a small construction company specializing in residential renovations. Elaine struggled for many years trying to make it as a young female contractor, but stuck it out and after several years began to see referrals. “I knew if I put in the time to overcome the doubt of others once again, I would make a name for myself and prove so many wrong.”
Elaine began working with girls at camp as an exchange. “I had a very special little girl in my life that I could not afford t send to camp, so in exchange I offered to teach woodworking to the campers. At the time, I had no idea the amazing impact it would have and this experience forever changed my purpose.” In exchange for giving one girl a summer camp experience, Elaine found her passion for giving young girls a jump on overcoming the self doubt in male dominated fields including construction. “I had experienced it first hand and overcame it through self-determination, hard work and continually ‘trying’ new things in construction, often teaching myself as I had no one to turn to for support or help in overcoming the odds of making it in the construction industry.”
These experiences led Elaine to start Girls at Work, Inc. She built a barn in New Boston to house the program back in 1999, and shortly after that gathered together a group of friends who were passionate about the idea; they became the first board of directors. With help from a New Hampshire law firm that was willing to work with pro bono, Girls at Work, Inc. was born in 2000. “Once the barn was fully equipped we started to run classes for low income girls starting at six years of age. Transportation was often an issue for youth organizations so we decided to put our program on the road. Four years ago we set up a booth at The New England American Camping Association Conference in Manchester and introduced our program to camp directors and staff from camps all over New England. We now have a fully loaded truck and we set up woodshops at various locations all over New England.” Projects range from small individual projects the girls can take home to sheds that are built onsite for the organization or camp they are working at. “Our focus is and has been at risk girls at non-profit camps, though we offer our program to any group of girls that want to learn how to build.”
Quite a few girls have gone through the program; Elaine estimates upwards of five thousand girls so far and hopes to double that number in the next few years. There is no typical workday; classes can travel to a camp to build a one hour project with ten girls and on a different day there may be a group of teen girls coming to the shop to build lockers for a homeless shelter.
Girls At Work, Inc. is not limited to New Hampshire. “We travel all over New England and hope someday to have our program set up in many states all over the United States. … Many different groups that strive to empower girls have contacted us from all over the U.S. Our training programs also enable us to reach more girls. This program will provide the opportunity to have others learn how to empower girls through building. I feel Girls At Work, Inc. will contribute to the future of New England by creating stronger girls and more confident young women. This will enable them to make better choices, give back to their communities and hopefully down the road it may help with the wage inequity. Girls will no longer accept less because they are girls.”
For Elaine, Girls at Work Inc. provides a great deal of personal satisfaction. The hands that are painted with fingernail polish are strong enough to hold drills, saws, hammers and nails. At the end of class, Elaine and the girls give each other high fives and show off their completed products, sharing a deep pride in their accomplishments. “Building with girls is rewarding in more ways than I can list. I had a few adults observing a class I had recently taught and they said that ‘these girls went from a bud to a flower, right before our eyes’. I feel that sums it up. We build girls. It’s as simple as that.”
For more information about the programs of Girls at Work, Inc., call 603-345-0392, or visit www.girlswork.org.