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Girls At Work
"Everything about a power tool says 'no' to a girl… It says 'power', it says 'capable', it says ‘big and strong and men'. So you take this little girl that's been abused or neglected or abandoned and you take a power tool and you put that in her hands. So now what happens.”
For most young girls, the idea of using a drill press, electric sander, or branding iron is not the first thing that comes to mind when they think of their skills. Girls At Work is a New Hampshire nonprofit based in Kingston that is working to change that, giving girls the knowledge and tools to build their strength and courage as well as a peg board or box.
Coming from a family of five brothers and no sisters, Elaine Hamel was used to being able to do whatever her brothers did but when it came to her desire to join shop class, she was told she couldn’t because she was a girl.
Later, when she left college to pursue a career in construction, it took going to countless companies before she could find a job where she was accepted.
So when asked why she started a nonprofit that teaches young girls, usually aged from six to fourteen, how to build using power tools, she says, “The reason, I guess, I focused on girls is because I never had that opportunity.”
The idea for Girls At Work came to Hamel 27 years ago when she took in a neighbor whose parents were addicts. Having done so, she explains that, “It occurred to me that I needed to put her in summer camp … which baffles me because I'd never been to camp.”
After speaking to the local Girl Scouts’ office and finding a camp, she signed up her young neighbor.
“At the time I was a general contractor, very young general contractor and struggling contractor,” says Hamel, “so in order for me to get her into this camp, I had asked if there was anything I could do in exchange … as opposed to paying for the program.”
When the camp leaders discovered she was a contractor, they asked her to teach the girls how to build. “So I loaded a bunch of tools and off I went to camp and I spent the week,” says Hamel, not realizing at the time that it would be an experience that would change the course of her career.
“The first day they got there just after breakfast and they worked until about 10 or 11 that night and they wanted to work through each meal. And every morning they would get there before breakfast and just be in that space because it was so powerful for them.”
Hamel then started to teach at camps between contracting jobs but she explains that, “Then it just got too crazy, I felt like I was letting down more kids than I was helping.”
It was during time spent building a set for a local production of The Sound of Music years later that Hamel met two students of an economic development program at the local college.
“They needed a pilot program to submit as a business plan and it all sort of happened through conversation,” says Hamel, who spent hours talking to the students about teaching girls to build.
They set up a business plan for a nonprofit that would mean that Hamel could help more girls and, “We were one of three that were chosen, so I got a check in the mail.”
Hamel spent the next year planning the organization of the nonprofit and in 2000, Girls At Work was founded.
She explains that the mission of Girls At Work is to “teach girls at risk how to use power tools safely and through that experience, they'll discover their inner power tools of strength and courage, and it really alters their lens of how they see themselves.”
Girls At Work partners with local social services to find girls most in need of help and takes their programs to them, arranging building projects after school or during summer camps.
“I could spend hours in stories that could just break your heart,” says Hamel, and indeed, the stories she tells of the experiences faced by these young girls are truly horrific.
But Girls At Work is not there to focus on these negative experiences. “We work with kids that are just so, I don't even know what the word is, they're just abandoned on a lot of different levels and so I think for our program, it's so successful within these kids because it gives them a chance to be in a moment.”
Working with the power tools is something so foreign to all but very few of the girls that they are forced to forget everything but the dangerous tool in front of them.
“We really drive home the concept of focusing and staying in that zone and that safe work zone to keep them safe but it puts all that other stuff aside.”
The importance of the power tool cannot be underestimated. “These girls feel defeated and powerless and, I mean, just not capable of much. And so when you take a power tool and all it represents, it represents so much than they would ever have imagined.”
Using the power tools gives these young girls the chance to face something they are afraid of and feel the strength that they have within them when they do so.
“You've got a power tool that says all these things like strength and courage and all this, and then you've got a little girl, especially a little girl who's struggling with all these issues and she's defeated and she's scared and she's powerless and she's got her armor on and she's totally detached. And if you can get through that armor and you can get to that place where there's that scared little kid and you can teach her how to be safe with a really big tool, and show her what she's capable through that, she overcomes a lot of fear through that process and really learns to be in that moment.”
The girls’ safety is always the first item that is addressed and they are shown what each power tool does and how to use it safely. Hamel is constantly on the lookout to make sure each and every girl stays safe but she ensures that she doesn’t hover over the girls.
“They don't need to be spoon-fed, they need to be provided with that experience where they can figure it out,” she says.
When the girls pick up the tools, their hesitancy is clear but by the end even just five minutes with the palm sander – the first tool they use – they become oblivious to the world around them, more and more confident by the minute.
By the end of the session, the girls are demanding more time to create more projects, looking forward to the next project, and are far more outgoing and confident than when they started.
Girls At Work has taken regular evaluations of the girls’ reactions to their programs throughout the years and with one of the most frequent answers to the question of ‘How do you feel about yourself?’ being ‘smart’, there’s no doubt of the program’s success.
“A lot of them will say that they feel smarter and they feel stronger and they feel brave and they didn't know they were so strong. And there's one that I can still see, this little girl, she was seven, when she answered that question, she wrote, 'I feel great about me'. What's better than that?”
While they will continue the work they do helping the girls who most need it, Hamel wants to reach as many girls as possible and make them realize they are capable of anything. With this in mind, the newest endeavor for Girls At Work is to introduce an after-school program in the local Charter Schools.
Eileen Liponis, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Public Charter School Association, says that, “Many of the social curriculum at charter schools are built around that sense of community and working together and respect, and this lends greatly to it.”
Despite Hamel’s initial fear that the girls might be too tired to build after school, the girls all gather excitedly, though some with more trepidation than others, ready to start building.
For older girls in the after-school program who themselves have attended before, they get the chance to help the newer participants. They become the ones supervising the drill press and assisting the younger students, all under Hamel’s watchful eye.
Olivia, aged 13, who helped the girls use the drill press explains that, “In the beginning, some girls would go really slow and they wouldn’t go down all the way, and then when they did their last hole, they’d go faster and they were just standing up straighter and were more confident. And that’s really amazing to see.”
The girls enjoy the sessions so much that all of them manage to finish their pegboards with time enough to make a second, or even a third. The focus on their faces is something that would be admired by working adults the world over, as is their enjoyment.
When each girl has finished her project, she gets to brand it with the Girls At Work Branding iron, a part which seems to bring them no end of joy and satisfaction. When asked why she thinks it means so much to them, Hamel says that, “Maybe they're stamping this project and it's like a stamp on, 'I did this, I got this, this is all about me.'”
From 10 girls working together on a big project to 400 girls in one day at a camp, all in one barn working on Shaker peg boards, Girls At Work is completely flexible with the way it approaches each project.
The results are always the same, though. The girls come out feeling stronger, more confident, and full of the knowledge that are capable of anything, and certainly as capable as any boy.
One participant, Jacqueline, aged 14, says that, “I think it's a really great thing for girls to be able to learn how to do that themselves because ... they can evolve more as leaders then they can use these skills that they learnt to build a house, to use for a career, maybe they want to be a builder.”
She continues saying that, “I think this is a great thing for girls to do because it's very stereotyped that this is something that only men do and I think it's great for women to learn the same skills as them because they have the same potential – they're equal.”
Since 2000, Girls At Work has seen close to 6000 girls pass through their programs, each as successful as the previous one. “I think they succeed on so many levels, they just want that, they want a chance to succeed.”
Hamel always emphasizes that the program is all about the girls themselves: “This is their process, this is their experience. We enable them to be safe and to be around girls and women and it's an environment where there's no pressure from boys ... it's just all about girls. And so it's their experience and it's just enabling them to discover what's going on for them that they just had no idea was in there.”
Hamel hopes to give the girls who are faced with tremendous challenges in their lives the strength and courage to know that they can achieve anything they put their mind to. She wants to show all the girls they work with, ‘at-risk’ or not, that they have the power to change the world.
“Hopefully that translates into some really difficult stuff these kids face, and hopefully she's a little bit stronger and she's a little bit braver ... If you teach them how to overcome something they're very scared of, they're really afraid of, can anyone ever really take that away from them?”
Hamel’s dedication to helping these girls is truly something to behold and as she goes around high-fiving girls as they’ve finished their projects, it is clear that she is passionate about helping as many girls as possible.
“Some days I drive home after a day of building with kids and I can't even find my way home. I'm so torn by what I've learned from these kids and they teach me everyday. I learn from them every day.”