Mike Cote’s Business Editor’s Notebook: Building the future with life skills and a band saw

WANTED: A BUS BIG enough to contain a woodworking shop and some volunteers to help build it.

Mel Gosselin poses with inspirational messages written on the walls by former students in the workshop of Girls at Work, where she was recently named CEO. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)Mel Gosselin poses with inspirational messages written on the walls by former students in the workshop of Girls at Work, where she was recently named CEO. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Girls at Work, a Manchester nonprofit that teaches girls and women how to make things with power tools and empower themselves in the process, wants to go mobile so it can expand its reach statewide.

Think of it as a food truck that smells like sawdust.

That’s a familiar scent to the girls ages 8 to 12 who participate in the eight-week after-school sessions at Girls at Work’s headquarters at 4 Elm St., in an old school building also home to the American-Canadian Genealogical Society.

In that work space, the girls learn how to safely use power tools to build modest projects like shaker peg boards and over time more complex items like birdhouses, bookcases and Adirondack chairs. Participants in team-building activities designed for adults and businesses make picnic tables, which are often donated to local nonprofits.

Program Director Elaine Hamel, who founded Girls at Work in 2000, just doubled the size of her staff – which means she’s no longer the only paid employee.

She has high hopes for the nonprofit’s new CEO, Mel Gosselin, who spent 13 years as executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank, leading it to become the state’s largest nonprofit food distribution center.

“We’ve been gearing up for this, and we’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes so that we were positioned to make this move, and it’s going to be a game-changer,” Hamel said Thursday as she prepared to do some clean-up work around the shop. “I’m really excited. We’re all really excited.”

Girls at Work is aiming to grow both its current offerings and launch new efforts, like the proposed mobile workshop. It’ll be tapping Gosselin’s experience raising funds and developing programs.

“This is a huge, huge move for us, but it’s time,” Hamel said. “If you look at our society right now, I feel like the best thing we could be doing is building up our girls and women. Regardless of your party interests, it’s obvious we need to be doing this so it’s time to really ramp up our efforts. And that’s why we brought on Mel.”

When Gosselin resigned from the New Hampshire Food Bank in July, she had long become the public face of the organization.

“I think good leaders realize when it’s time to let someone else come in with fresh eyes. I needed to make that decision,” Gosselin said Thursday, while seated in one of the picnic tables made by a Girls at Work adult team. “It was a really tough one, especially around the holidays. But I still think about my team at the food bank. They were awesome.”

The Manchester native compares Girls at Work to the Food Bank when she first joined the Catholic Charities New Hampshire nonprofit: a small organization with a lot of room to grow.

“When I was with the Food Bank, it was sort of at this level when I started. We built a really good team, and I’m so proud of their accomplishments. And I know they’re more than capable of taking it to the next level,” she said.

Now Gosselin will help another nonprofit grow to the next level – preferably on wheels.

“Our future will involve a mobile workshop. Then we can go across the state and offer the environment, a similar experience to coming into our workshop.”

Part of the battle is encouraging girls to participate, convincing them that operating a cordless drill and cutting a board with a table saw (with adult supervision, of course) are skills they can learn and will enjoy doing.

“These programs still exist in schools, but the enrollment for girls really isn’t there. They’ll walk by the shop and maybe glance in, but it’s not their territory,” Gosselin said. “It’s awesome to be able to offer it. And I think it’s fun that we’re in a school. It feels like their other home.”

Girls at Work works with 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federal program under the Department of Education that funds after-school enrichment programs, “particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools,” according to the program’s website. It also generates revenue from team-building activities for women and businesses and “power birthday parties.”

Gosselin began volunteering with Girls at Work after she left the New Hampshire Food Bank. Joining the team seemed like a natural fit, she said.

“I’ve been in my home 17 years now. I’ve pretty much redone every room,” said Gosselin, 49. “I built a garage. I grew up pouring concrete with my father so I did my own concrete work. I’m really proud of it. I’m not a master carpenter by any means. But I’m proud because it’s mine now.”

Girls at Work aims to instill that same sense of pride. One of the walls of the workshop is covered with signatures and notes girls have scrawled with sharpies to celebrate their success.

“We’re not going to fail here. It really starts clicking in the upper part of their brain and they start thinking about, ‘Wow, I can do this. I’m a rock star because I built that,'” Gosselin said. “From week one to week eight, it’s so transformative. They leave here, and they write all over the wall. We’re building leaders, and we’re building strong teams.”

Gosselin learned a lot about building teams during the decade she spent opening and managing Wal-Mart stores in New Hampshire.

“Wal-Mart was an amazing experience for me. I never imagined that I would be in the retail world,” she said. “I had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Sam Walton, the legend. If anyone knew about relationship building and taking care of your people, he did.

“My father was the same way: You don’t leave until the job is done. People are awesome. You have to figure out how to make them shine.”

For more information visit girlswork.org.

Mike Cote is business editor. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or [email protected] – See More at the Union Leader