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Inspiring Woman on a Mission: Katie Hughes

women on a mission Sep 21, 2018

Imagine a summer camp where instead of making lanyards or arts and craft projects, girls construct a playhouse or take apart a water meter. Where instead of swimsuits, shorts and sandals, they put on safety goggles, hardhats and toolbelts.

Every summer in Portland, Oregon, girls ages 8 to 14 attend a camp just like this and discover the confidence and empowerment that comes from learning how to use pretty sophisticated power tools to build something from scratch.

Girls Build was founded by Katie Hughes, a carpenter by trade who wanted to open up a new world for young girls.

When Katie was growing up and something needed fixing, her mother would turn to her or one of her two older sisters to work on it.

“It really influenced how I approached building and life,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to open things up.”

But she adds that she didn’t take advantage of classes like auto shop, wood shop or metal shop when she was in school. No one was hiding them from her, she says; it just never crossed her mind that she could participate.

Although she got her degree in social work, Katie never lost her love of working with tools and building. She volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and a contractor saw her work one day and offered her a job in the trades. She then worked for a group that encouraged women to learn about entering the construction business. They wanted to start up a camp to go along with their girls’ program. Could Katie run it?

Remembering the girl she was – who could build a fence, fix a VCR and chop wood, but didn’t think she could attend wood or metal shop at school – Katie jumped at the chance.

She created a week-long program that introduced girls to various aspects of building: using a hammer and drill, the basics of framing a structure, sanding, painting, how to safely use power saws, shingling a roof.

Girls Build is staffed by professional tradeswomen and educators, but they also make sure the girls in their camp meet professionals from a variety of trades. This year they had visiting electricians, roofers, solar installers, sheet metal workers, water maintenance workers, tree trimmers, and more. It’s a gamut of role models talking about well-paying careers these girls could explore.

By the conclusion of the week, the girls– typically 40 of them, broken into 4 supervised teams – build a playhouse or covered sandbox that will be donated to a domestic violence shelter or auctioned off as a fundraiser.

At the end of camp, the girls excitedly show their parents what they’ve learned, taking them through a tour of their whole week. Katie’s favorite parts of these last days are when her campers show their parents how at ease they are with big (and sometimes scary) pieces of machinery, like a chop saw.

“The girls just walk up to it so confidently,” Katie said, adding that working on the chop saw is reserved for the older girls, not the 8-year-olds. “They make sure their safety gear is on, their ear protection is in, their board is secure and they cut it right on the line. They are so nonchalant about it – ‘of course I can do this.’”

The girls get to take home their hard hats, safety glasses and ear protection after camp, the better to continue their building pursuits.

The construction trades are one of the last sectors where men overwhelmingly make up the workforce. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women hold about 10 percent of construction-related jobs in the United States, most of those positions are in offices as support workers, marketers or designers - not on building sites. It drops down to about 1 in 100 workers when you look at actual construction work.

And while Girls Build hopes to change those numbers, it’s about more than women going into construction.

“In any given year, we might have camp or afterschool activities for about 200 girls,” said Katie. “If 10 percent of them go into the trades, that’s great. But what I want is for girls to think they can build things for themselves. For more girls to step up and be more confident in the world.”


Check out the Girls Build website and see what happens when you put tools in the hands of girls.

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