Some kids spend their summers swimming and paddling. Others hammering and drilling.
Bella and Kaylee are two of the leaders of Girls at Work. It’s a program for girls based in Manchester that teaches girls how to build everything from shelves to picnic tables using power tools.
Bella and Kaylee, my guides for the day, are 12. I asked them how they became leaders.
“We’ve been here for so long and we started to show we could step it up. And we could do things on our own without being asked to,” says Kaylee.
Bella, Kaylee, and some of the other girls have been on television, spoken about their work before crowds of hundreds, and attended the inauguration of the mayor.
The two gave me a tour. Girls at Work is located in the bottom floor of an old school. There’s two workshops filled with tools and benches. In one, the walls are covered in writing.
“As you can see on the wall they have lots of inspirational quotes from people who’ve been here," says Bella. "Everyone left a mark.”
Bella’s favorite one says "F.E.A.R," which stands for “face everything and rise.”
Girls at Work wasn’t Bella’s first choice. She’d wanted to sign up for a cooking class but it was full so she ended up at Girls at Work. But she loved it, much to her surprise.
“I was quite shocked I preferred this,” explains Bella. “Girls are really powerful and they just sometimes don’t know it yet. It’s kind of locked up inside them. Girls at Work is the key to opening that cage of power.”
Unlocking that cage of power is exactly what Elaine Hamel had in mind when she started Girls at Work in 2000.
Twenty seven years ago, Elaine, then in her 20s, was working as a general contractor in Manchester when a neighbor girl came to live with her. The girl's parents were addicts. Elaine wanted to send the girl, then 10 years old, to summer camp, but she was a struggling contractor and couldn’t afford the admission costs. So Elaine asked a local camp if they needed anything built. They asked her if she’d come teach their girls to build.
“So I went to camp for a week when I was 27,” says Elaine.
The Girls at Work camps are geared toward at-risk girls. Elaine has a broad view of what that means for girls, particularly in light of what these girls are seeing on TV and in movies.
“Women’s roles are victim, abused, raped, murdered. We have little girls who tell us their babysitter is the television,” says Elaine. “These messages have trickled down. The bullying in schools is out of control.”
Putting power tools in the hands of girls as young as 6 wasn’t an easy sell, as you might imagine.
But safety is a top priority at camp and they haven’t had any major accidents. When I told Kaylee and Bella that the jigsaw scared me, they told me that that’s good.
“It teaches you to be safe,” says Kaylee.
Safety wasn’t the only obstacle, though. Elaine says when she was shopping her workshops around to camps in New England she heard that her classes weren’t necessary because they already had woodworking… at the boys camp.
Power tools give girls literal power but Girls at Work is also about teaching critical thinking skills. The girls get lumber and a model and they have to figure out how to put it together.
Elaine has put power tools in the hands of more than 15,000 girls. But who put one in hers?
“Nobody. I couldn’t get anybody to teach me because I’m a girl. Ironically I grew up with five brothers who don't use power tools,” she says.
Elaine was a struggling student and suffered abuse.
“I acted out a lot as a kid so I get these kids. I know what they’re about,” explains Elaine.
In recent years, there’s been story after story about the looming crisis in skilled trades due to the average age of the workers. Elaine says it’s never been her goal to get girls in construction but that’s largely because her own experiences as a woman in the male-dominated industry were so rough. She's very protective of the girls who come through her programs.
“I've had to let go of that mindset because the average electricians and plumbers are in their 50s,” says Elaine.
A female welder based in Boston visited Girls at Work and left the girls feeling inspired. One told Elaine she was going to be just like that welder when she grew up.
“I need to trust they can handle it and make sure they are prepared,” says Elaine.
Back with Kaylee and Bella, I asked them what they’ve learned from their time with Girls at Work.
"I'm powerful," says Kaylee.
“And that we can handle being pushed,” says Bella.
As I was leaving, Kaylee called back to me: “You should come build with us.”