When Elaine Hamel started Girls at Work out of a pickup truck back in 2000, she initially feared that there wouldn’t be enough interest in her girls-only woodshop classes. Fast forward 12 years and the New Hampshire-based nonprofit has given nearly 6,000 girls across New England the opportunity to try their hands at woodworking.
“As a builder I never met women in the field,” Hamel told us. “But we recently held a workshop on the cape and had over 400 girls build a small project in one day. Many of these girls waited in the rain for over an hour just to get the chance to build with us! There is something incredibly powerful going on here.”
Hamel’s workshops mainly seek to empower local girls in need. By hosting after school programs and summer camp classes, they’re able to work with their students in familiar and convenient settings. This proves advantageous, as a number of the girls who come through Girls at Work grapple with uncertain lives outside of class. Many reside in group homes and foster care, while others are passed around from relative to relative. For these young women, the hardships of everyday life can squelch ambition and self-esteem.
“Many of the girls we build with feel defeated, abandoned, and powerless,” Hamel explained. “Our program allows them to see themselves as strong and extremely capable. Ultimately, it enables them to really believe in themselves when so many in their lives have fallen short of such an important task.”
But convincing these girls that building isn’t just for boys is an uphill battle in and of itself. Though there’s been some progress in breaking gender stereotypes (Swedish catalog Leklust is a good example), we have a long way to go before all girls feel at ease with handling a power tool.
“Our girls come in thinking tools are for men, not women,” Hamel said. “The amount of growth that takes place when you teach girls how to safely use power tools to build is truly amazing. Once they finish a project, regardless if it is a small shaker peg board that takes an hour, or an entire shed that takes several days, they are so incredibly pumped. Many of them say they are going to build their own house. The attitude they carry with them is that they are willing and able to take on the world! It is just a beautiful thing to see them believe in themselves.”
So what’s up next for Hamel and her team? Their future includes building partnerships with both nonprofit agencies and for-profit corporations, revenue-raising campaigns, and working with a handful of new board members. Oh, and hopefully securing funds for a shiny new truck, which would make travelling across New England with weighty equipment a whole lot easier! Clearly, it’s full steam ahead for Girls at Work.
“After having thousands of girls go through our program, you would think that some of the excitement has worn off,” Hamel said. “But with each new insecure, scared little girl who shows up to build with us, there is another chance to help this little kid see herself as a powerhouse, a super strong and capable little person, and as one of our little builders wrote, ‘awesomer’! What could possibly be better than that?”
Images via Girls at Work