By Sarah Palermo, Concord Monitor, August 19, 2011 – As the pinkie-swear secret-keeping circle broke, the gaggle of girls from Camp Spaulding started giggling.
Elaine Hamel would have none of that, thank you very much.
“Please don’t talk when I’m talking. We’re losing building time,” she said, and at once, all eyes were back on her.
There’s no sweet talk or sugar-coating here. No coaxing and no cooing. These girls don’t need to be babied anymore.
Each of them has, after all, already conquered the big-girl saw.
This group was taking “Girls At Work” at Camp Spaulding, which teaches girls ages 6 to 14 how to use power tools like cordless drills, hand sanders and the big-girl saw, also known as a sliding compound miter saw.
When Hamel attends an annual construction career day in Hopkinton for high school students, maybe a dozen of the 1,000 students who attend are girls, she said. Girls rarely enroll in construction trades classes, intimidated by the room full of boys, she said.
So she brings shop class to them, at Spaulding and other camps across New England for girls from low-income families. She comes, she said, so they can feel the swelling of pride in feeling a rough 2×4 go smooth under a hand sander, or point to a bench, a picnic table or a birdhouse, and say, “I built that.”
“It’s about giving them the feeling of being a success,” Hamel said. “Building is just the medium for the message that they are smart and they can do anything.”
Using the big-girl saw for the first time, Caitlyn Dionne, 8, stepped up on a milk crate so she could reach. She grimaced, grabbed on with both hands, and lowered the whizzing, whirring blade through the wood once, then twice, and turned it off.
“Caitlyn, was it scary?” asked 10-year-old Molly Fernandes.
“Nah,” Caitlyn replied, skipping off to smooth her block with the hand sander.
At Girls At Work camps over the past four years, Jaylene McNamara has made a shelf, three coat hangers, two picnic tables, a bench and a shed. The big items stay at Camp Spaulding, but she gets to take home the smaller ones for souvenirs.
“It was kinda scary at first, but now it’s like ‘Duh. Of course we can do that,’ ” she said.
Her friend Addia Bayly chimed in that watching girls new to the program was kind of funny.
“Not like funny like a mean funny,” she said, “but funny because we already know we can build things, and they don’t know it yet.”
Jaylene, 12, Addia, 11, and the rest of their cabin weren’t supposed to be in the workshop Monday afternoon, but they had been bit, hard, by the building bug.
They were supposed to fill out surveys and go back to quiet hour. But they begged and pleaded for more work, so Hamel set them to building small side tables.
She did the measuring and adjusted the saw for the angles, but when she has campers for more than two days, Hamel teaches them how to determine angles and measure different pieces of their projects.
“They tell you they don’t know math and science, but put the tools in their hands and they show you and they show themselves what they know,” she said.
Girls At Work was an accident for Hamel. She took in a neighbor’s daughter who had nowhere else to live. When Hamel learned she couldn’t afford summer camp, she bartered tuition for woodworking instruction.
Ten years ago, she gave up almost all of her day work as a general contractor to run Girls At Work programs.
“Women in New Hampshire are still earning 72 cents on the dollar to men. If we prove to them early on that they are just as good, we’re not going to have that anymore,” she said.
But lecturing won’t work. Girl power sing-alongs won’t work. To know they are just as good as boys, girls need to do things they always thought they couldn’t, she said.
“You have to push ’em so far out of their box they can’t see straight,” she said, “and then they’re done, and they’re like, ‘Whoa. I built a bench.’ They have to feel it, they have to see it.”
In the decade since she started the nonprofit organization that runs the classes, and she says more than 5,000 girls have gone through it since
‘I got fed up’
Hamel learned about “girl power” the hard way.
The only daughter in a very traditional Manchester family with five boys, she “did the girly things” growing up. To her father, girly things did not include college.
So she worked and saved and managed to pay for two years on her own before the money ran out. At the time, condominium developments were sprouting like weeds along the southern tier of the state, and construction jobs were plentiful.
Hamel checked out books from the library and taught herself the basics of the work. Then she began applying at construction sites.
She only rarely found contractors willing to hire a woman, and landing a job meant a new set of challenges. She would wear ear plugs to work every day to block out the catcalls and harassment from her co-workers.
Finally, “I got fed up,” she said, and she started her own contracting business.
“I definitely starved for a few years. It was real tough. Then I started getting referrals, people saying I wasn’t so bad,” she said.
When she offered to barter construction classes for camp tuition for her foster daughter, the camp director practically begged her to return, she said. She began offering the classes in a barn she built on her property but realized it was hard for girls from low-income families to get there.
So she began bringing the classes to them and hasn’t looked back since.
“These little girls look cute and happy now, but a lot of them count the days till camp, because they’ll have three meals a day, they’ll know where they’re going to sleep,” she said. “It’s this one pocket of time a year when they are built up by camp directors and counselors and people like me who come in. And so you try to make them as big as you can in as short of time as you have, so when they go back to (their) lives . . . they are a little bit bigger and a little bit more able to handle all that.”
Hamel sat silently when asked what her life would have been like if someone had shown her how to use power tools when she was young. Would she have left college, would she have accepted for so long her father’s edict that girls can’t, that girls don’t deserve to do what boys do?
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like,” she said after a long moment.
She looked down at her palms. “I had to do all that. I had to go through all that to create this. Nobody would teach me; I heard ‘No’ more than you can count. The harassment, the inequality, it’s fired me to provide them with so much more,” she said. “This is my payback.”