Summer campers building

New Hampshire Union Leader: Girls building more than confidence — one tool at a time

Forget that old adage about “a woman’s work is never done.”

These days, a girl’s work is never done.

That could serve as the motto for Girls At Work, a nonprofit organization that was created to teach woodworking skills to women and girls.

By way of demonstration, the Girls At Work workshop on the New Boston-Goffstown town line was overrun yesterday by girls from Girls Inc., another nonprofit group whose clientele fits as neatly into the Girls At Work mission as the pieces of the wooden jigsaw puzzles the girls created last week.

They used a real jigsaw.

“It’s wicked fun,” said 14-year-old Meghan Anderson, one of 11 aspiring carpenters (her sister Kelly included) in the gaggle from Girls Inc.

Overseeing it all — the forewoman, if you will — is Elaine Hamel.

Elaine is the founder of Girls At Work, and when she isn’t engaged in construction projects of her own, she’s busy building a bridge for women and girls who might never have had the chance to learn the first thing about woodworking. “People ask if we’re discriminating,” she said, “but we’re not discriminating. We’re leveling the playing field. If there weren’t opportunities for boys to learn the trades, they’d be welcome, but there are a lot of programs already in place for boys. We want to give the girls a chance.”

And remember, it’s not just for girls.

It’s for women, too, since, in addition to special projects like the ongoing Girls Inc. venture and her regular Saturday morning program for youngsters, Elaine also schedules Friday night shop classes for grown-ups on demand. Why does she do it?

Perhaps it’s because she grew up in a very traditional family — including five brothers — and she had to defy what some of us over-educated people call “prevailing familial and societal norms” to pursue her chosen career.

“My mother wanted me to be an airline stewardess,” she smiled. “Because I was the girl, I was supposed to stay home and help my mother cook and clean. My parents had a real hard time with this in the beginning, but the family joke now is that none of my brothers knows which end of a hammer is which.”

Elaine does.

She’s had her own contracting business for 16 years. She’s the owner/operator of EMH Remodeling and thanks to word-of-mouth referrals — she hasn’t advertised in years — she has to turn down as many jobs as she can accept. Before Elaine started her own company, however, she had to earn her spurs in an era when the construction business, much like Augusta National Golf Club, required a Y chromosome for membership.

“I started in 1984 during that big condo boom,” she said. “There were thousands of jobs for people who wanted to get into the trades, but on my first job, it was 500 men and me. It was this huge site in Nashua. My supervisor said he’d give me the job, but I had to look like a man. He couldn’t do that today, but I was determined, so I wore sunglasses and I tucked my hair up under my hat — it wasn’t gray then — and basically, I dressed like a man.”

And she worked like a dog.

She worked and she learned. She drew upon all of her energy and maybe on a little bit of genetics — her grandfather was an architect — and before long, the one-time commercial art major at Notre Dame College had built herself a career.

She built herself a barn, too.

That’s where the girls from Girls Inc. are doing their work right now — girls like Concord High School sophomore-to-be Christina Dickinson — and according to Elaine, that barn is a particular point of interest to them. “They’ll come in and they’ll ask me, ‘Did you build this barn?’ so I say ‘Yes,’ and in the beginning, you can see them kind of file that away. By the end, they leave here, and they tell me they’re going to build their own house some day. If they can keep an ounce of that . . .”

They should.

The girls from Girls Inc. are in the midst of a six-week program Madonna fans might enjoy, since it’s called “Material Girls.”

In addition to the hands-on woodworking sessions in Elaine’s barn, they’ve visited a sawmill to see how lumber is created, they’ve shopped for wood and building materials at Home Depot, and they’ve visited the Marble House in Newport, R.I.

“We chose it because it was the home of Alma (Vanderbilt) Belmont,” said Karen Billings, the regional director of Girls Inc. “It wasn’t the kind of thing women did in those days, but she helped the architect design the building. She was strong, smart and bold, and that’s the motto for Girls Inc.”

The motto could work for Girls At Work, too.

And the hard-working Elaine Hamel — whose agency derives funding from groups like the Women’s Fund of New Hampshire, Providian Financial and the Sidore Foundation — is helping the girls build more than CD racks, Shaker plant stands, picnic tables for the Goffstown Babe Ruth baseball field and furniture for Girls Inc. offices.

They’re building confidence, too.

“It’s magical,” she said. “When they first come in, they’re timid and shy and they’re afraid of all the tools, but by the end, they can use every tool at their station and when was the last time you saw a girl walking around with a power tool?

“It wasn’t an option for me,” she added, “but I can make it one for them. You can’t put a price tag on that. They already have what it takes. I just provide an avenue to help them get where they may want to go.”

For more information about instructional programs from Girls At Work, call 345-0392 or visit the agency’s Web site at www.girlswork.org.

By: JOHN CLAYTON

Date: July 25, 2003

Publication: New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, NH)