When Elaine Hamel started working construction in the early ’80s, it was a man’s world. The condo boom meant plenty of work. Hamel joined a construction crew as the only woman among 500 men. “My supervisor said he would hire me if I didn’t look like a woman,” Hamel recalls. She hid her figure with baggy clothes and then went about proving she could work as hard, if not harder, than the guys. “I was breaking pins off of foundations and I lasted longer than a dozen other guys,” she says.
She did, however, encounter plenty of harassment and ultimately decided to strike out on her own. “I had to teach myself. No one would teach me. They had this idea … ‘But you’re a girl,” and I thought, ‘So?'” she says. During the past 20 years, she has built a strong reputation as a contractor, and gets more business than she can handle through referrals. Now she is passing her knowledge on to the next generation of girls, making sure they learn that power tools aren’t just for boys.
Hamel is founder and director of Girls at Work Inc. in New Boston, a nonprofit that assists girls and women in building confidence sand independence while learning woodworking. Through the program, Hamel hosts classes at her barn and travels to summer camps and youth programs throughout New England to teach girls how to build everything from Shaker pegboards and shelves to picnic tables and sheds.
“Our focus is at-risk girls. There is a real need for girls at risk to have programming that empowers them,” Hamel says. “They get to do something they’ve been told they can’t do or shouldn’t do.”
Girls at Work grew organically. When Hamel became a guardian for a teenage girl, she was asked to teach woodworking at the girl’s summer camp. The classes went so well, Hamel began offering her services to other camps, and classes quickly became popular. In the late ’90s, she built a barn and woodshop next to her home and by 2000 formalized what she was doing, incorporating her woodworking program.
Girls at Work teaches about 1,000 girls over a course of a summer and has reached about 5,000 girls in total so far, Hamel says. And while her volunteer efforts bring her into contact with some tough teenagers, Hamel welcomes the challenge. “The most difficult girls at camp are usually the best builders,” she says. “These girls just need someone to believe in them.”
Hamel says girls quickly become excited about turning on a power tool. And what strikes her most about the program is the pride it instills in the girls. When one class built a picnic table, Hamel recalls one of the girls sitting on their finished project exclaiming, “Can you believe we built this? You can buy this at a store!”
Girls at Work is seeking to connect with other nonprofits that need things like shelves and lockers built for them, as she teaches philanthropy as part of her program. A group of girls recently built lockers for New Horizons, a soup kitchen in Manchester. “They realize they have something to give,” Hamel says.
Hamel wants to bring her program into women’s prisons. “There’s a shortage [of workers] in the construction industry and an enormous need to add to the trades. What group of women needs to be empowered more than women in prison?” she says. Hamel also offers a program for birthday parties, and recently started a class aimed at mothers and daughters. She is now reaching out to the construction industry in the state and other corporate sponsors for funding. For more information, visit www.GotTools.org.