Elaine Hamel likes her power tools. She likes them a lot. And although I’ve never met her in person, I have this cockamamie image of Elaine, running around her wood shop like Tim “the toolman” Taylor from Home Improvement, grunting as she brandishes a power sander and exhorts life lessons to her class of young female students.
Elaine is the Executive Director of Girls at Work, Inc., a nonprofit organization that empowers at-risk girls to discover their inner power tools of strength and courage through building. Elaine founded Girls at Work in 2000 after nearly 13 years in the construction industry as the founder of EMH Remodeling, specializing in residential renovations. On a website about marrying one’s passions with their profession, Elaine said: “I’ve seen girls shy away from woodshop in a school setting as the majority of the class consists of boys. But a girls’ camp, or our workshop full of girls, breaks down those walls and allows girls to try many new and different things they probably would not have attempted otherwise.
Right now, Elaine is working to raise $25,000 for her program through this Indiegogo campaign. The video on the site (and embedded at the end of this blog post) does a great job of bringing her program to life. I encourage you to check it out … and to think about throwing a few dollars her way. In addition to this work, Elaine spent time over a period of four years as a volunteer in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina where she trained and managed volunteers rebuilding for those in need.
Thanks for being a citizen philanthropist and nonprofit leader Elaine. And thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!
1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? My purpose in this life is to enable girls that feel defeated, neglected and abandoned to discover their ‘inner power tools’ of strength and courage through the experience of building.
2. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU? It has opened my eyes to the enormous amount of neglect and abandonment that exists within our youth. This work has enabled me to shift my career from a general contractor specializing in residential renovations to taking girls at risk out of their comfort zone and putting them in a place that leaves them feeling successful, competent and confident.
3. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING? An incredible amount of satisfaction knowing that this experience is helping girls at risk to alter the lens through which they view themselves. No longer are they merely defined by failing grades but encouraged by their accomplishments from building with us.
4. WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? I thought a lot about this. While there are many people that would fall under the definition of hero, I have to say so many of the girls we work with are my heroes. Our little builder that had several surgeries on her spine to remove tumors, the last surgery leaving her with one paralyzed arm. That didn’t stop her from building with us; never even slowed her down. Or the little girl that spent two months living in her car with her mother since ‘the boyfriend’ kicked them out. That didn’t stop her from being fully in the moment with us and building a shed. Or the little girl that had no idea where she was going to live after her summer camp session was over. She was no longer able to live with an aunt—her mother never wanted her she was told—because the man her aunt was dating would sneak in her room at night… So many girls we build with need to overcome horrible obstacles on a daily basis. Those are my heroes.
5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? I’d have to say two things: one, lumber. Always lumber! Another is anything with our logo, t-shirts, wrist bands, dog tags…we are really working toward a tangible reminder of their experience while building with us. This is such a powerful experience for our builders and a reminder of how capable and strong they are, despite everything that holds them back, is incredibly important.
6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY? Who believed in you as a kid and how much of a difference did that make in your life? Do you truly know how much of a difference you can make in the life of a little girl or boy that is neglected?
7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? The Power of Believing in Kids.
8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC? Beneath it all, I still struggle with voices of self-doubt that were programmed very early on.
9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS? Push past your fear of failure and listen to that inner voice telling you that you can make a difference, that you have purpose and a mission awaits you. My life is so much richer, knowing I can help a little girl that has struggled with neglect from day one, to begin to see herself as strong, powerful and so very capable.
10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? QUESTION: Why should people invest in a program that teaches girls how to build? ANSWER: Because so many of the girls we work with do not have supportive adults in their lives. While we cannot provide safe and supportive homes for all of them, what we can provide is an experience that will take girls pretty far out of their comfort zone and test their ability to trust themselves and each other. They overcome the fear associated with power tools and they learn to be in the moment and fully focused. They also learn that they are capable and powerful and as many of our evaluations report “awesomer” than they ever imagined. This is the lens they need to have in order to survive and to be so much more than they ever believed possible.