Girls at Work participants, pre-pandemic, atop chairs they built. Courtesy photos.
Usually, the workshops of Girls at Work echo with power drills and laughter—all music to the ears of Elaine Hamel, who founded the nonprofit 21 years ago. Her goal then and now is to empower young girls by teaching them to how to build.
And 2020 was going to be a pivotal year. They were rolling out a $500,000 renovation in a larger space in Manchester’s Millyard overseen by Harvey Construction. Co-funded with $300,000 in community donations, the 7,000-square-foot space at 200 Bedford St. was on schedule to be a top-notch woodworking facility and girl empowerment center.
When the pandemic hit, Hamel says she panicked because she knew she wouldn’t be able to host girls when the project was completed. Hamel says she became depressed when they quickly shut down, worried about the girls, many of whom come from at-risk homes. “Some of these kids live in toxic places,” she says. “I had to figure it out.”
She wasn’t deterred for long. As the only girl growing up among five brothers and one of the few women in the trades when she started her career, Hamel learned how to bounce back. She says of her childhood and career, “I only heard, ‘You can’t.’ It gets old after a while.
“No one would teach me to build. I was frustrated,” Hamel says.
Elaine Hamel, founder, with Girls at Work participants.
As an adult, she opened a construction company while helping to care for a young neighbor girl whose mother would often neglect her. To get the girl into a camp one summer, Hamel traded teaching woodworking for attendance fees, and that ignited her passion to launch Girls at Work.
Since then, more than 20,000 girls have participated in the program, Hamel says, adding “without a single injury.”
“When you teach a girl to use a power tool, it turns on who they really are. When they are building something, there’s nothing like it,” Hamel says. “They are 8 and 9 years old and they are all a force.”
She initially held Girls at Work in a barn she built on her property, then in an old school building. When they outgrew that space, Hamel and her board of directors decided to build a dream space in the same building that houses the SEE Science Center.
So, back to last March. Having turned “Nos” into “Yeses” her entire life, Hamel says she was not going to let a pandemic stop her.
She worked through her depression, refocused and convened with her staff, volunteers and Harvey Construction to devise a plan to move forward with the renovation. As she couldn’t bring girls onsite, she brought the projects to them.
Two participants working on an Adirondack Chair.
“We started doing little kits,” Hamel says, such as bird feeders and planters. Those kits included everything the girls would need for the project, including wood, glue, tape and other supplies, along with written directions and online how-to videos.
Projects were designed so girls could tackle them without a parent. And Girls at Work delivered the kits to girls’ homes.
Meanwhile, Hamel brought in volunteers from Timberland in Stratham to help on the renovation. “It was crazy how supportive everyone was,” Hamel says.
The facility is a testament to the craft of woodworking with barn-like facades that lead into two workshops and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) room. An open kitchen includes a backsplash designed and built by the girls enrolled in the program. The walls of the workshops are filled with messages of empowerment including one from Vice President Kamala Harris, “You are powerful and your voice matters.”
The new facility was designed to double as an event center. Hamel hopes to host events for other nonprofits to help them get back on their feet post-pandemic. It also includes a conference room custom designed to break down into smaller sections to be used as classrooms. Hamel says nonprofits and businesses are welcome to use the conference room.
Bottom: The new Girls at Work facility in Manchester’s Millyard.
A special feature is the Kindness Closet, filled with clothes, shoes and other essential items that the girls may need as some come from homes that know poverty. “Lots of kids have holes in their shoes or no sweater,” Hamel says.
For now, the space sits largely vacant. Rows of canvas bags with the next project, a wooden laptop desk with an LED light, sit waiting to be delivered. “It introduces STEM and simple circuitry,” Hamel says.
And the nonprofit is partnering with its neighbor, the SEE Science Center, to enroll girls in its science camp. “We are challenging traditional norms and normalizing girl power,” Hamel says. Girls at Work began reaching out to schools, the Boys & Girls Club, and YWCA to provide girls with the projects supported by individual donations and foundations.
Typically, Girls at Work offers afterschool programs, a leadership program for teens, a FIRST Robotics Team, and summer and vacation camps, all of which has been on hold. This year, a seven-week summer camp will be held using masks and CDC guidelines with lunch outside under tents. “I can’t wait to get the kids in here.”
Girls at Work also offers team building programs for businesses where groups build picnic tables that are then donated to area schools. “We look forward to that once COVID lets up,” Hamel says. “It allows companies to see the importance of what we do for the girls.”