Elaine Hamel: Dismantling gender norms to uplift ‘Girls at Work’

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Girls at Work gives young women the tools, both literal and intangible, needed to succeed in life. Courtesy Photo

MANCHESTERMANCHESTER, NH –Arriving at the 200 Bedford St. mill building, I had no precursor of what to expect from the local non-profit hub that dedicates its namesake and its mission to empowering young girls. Upon walking in, I was immediately floored by the vastness of the space and the level of care and attention I could feel existed there. I was greeted by Elaine Hamel, the Founder and Program Leader of Girls at Work, who made me feel right at home despite the fact that I, too, was there to work. 

Hamel talked me through the history of Girls at Work and gave me the inside view of why the organization is so important to girls, the culture, the community, and the industry. With their mission, “to challenge traditional norms and normalize girl power,” the non-profit focuses much of its resources on uplifting and supporting the inner-city girls right here at home in Manchester, though they do much work with outside districts and other Title 1 schools. 

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Elaine Hamel, Founder of Girls at Work.

Girls at Work focuses much attention on giving young girls experience that will boost their confidence so they can perform at their best, academically and in their own lives, from an empowered place. Hamel stressed the importance of teaching girls early on what they are capable of and what connecting them to this mindset can do to change their lives for the better. 

Hamel, as I learned in our time together, is a person who doesn’t take “no” for an answer in anything she does. Having been told no her whole life, from dropping out of college and knowing intuitively that her calling was not in academia, to taking her first steps toward Girls at Work. In the onset of her starting the organization, there were many naysayers who wanted her to believe she was crazy for trying to put power tools in young girls’ hands, but she never believed them. 

Having been a mentor to women of all ages since 1999, Hamel’s first major step toward community leadership took the form of a barn that she built at her home back in 2000. Before the barn, she spent many years working and traveling out of the back of her truck. Eventually, with more solid footing and increased community interest, she was led to the first foundational location of Girls at Work; an old school building in Manchester that opened its doors 10 years ago. Putting down some firmer roots enabled Hamel to work with summer camps in between renovations to the space, though, over time that proved to be a difficult setting for the work she and the girls were doing. The environments the summer camps were based in presented some tough challenges to navigating and emphasizing workplace safety, which is a top priority for Hamel and Girls at Work. 

Fast forward to 2022, Girls at Work has found its home in the beautiful 200 Bedford St. location. Renovations to the space began prior to the pandemic, but with a deluge of community support the organization was able to push through to their now fully renovated new workspace. At the non-profit hub you’ll find a full and welcoming kitchen, a large open lobby with a lounge area perfect for events, three workshops, a lumber-room, a naturally lit conference room, private offices to the side of the entrance, and a kindness room for donations in the rear of the space. 

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Family members of Cassie Heppner sign a wall in the Cassie Power Room workshop during the Girls at Work new space open house in 2020. Photo/Carol Robidoux

The primary woodshop was created in memoriam to Cassie Heppner, a former Timberland employee who was deeply involved and passionate about the mission of Girls at Work, who was tragically murdered in 2020. The Cassie Power Shop stands today as her living memory.

With so much to offer within the space, two of the workshops, including the Cassie Power Shop, are dedicated to woodworking, the other being focused on STEM. In the past, Girls at Work has led young girls on projects like building garden beds, birdhouses, simple circuitry, and even building picnic tables. In fact, on March 22, Mayor Joyce Craig will be attending a charity event where picnic tables built and painted by 350 of Hillside Middle School’s most eager girls will be donated to locations of the girls’ choice.

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About 15-20 picnic tables constructed in the fall by Hillside students under the direction of Girls at Work will be donated to local charities. Courtesy Photo

Today, Hamel utilizes most of the organization’s resources with girls ages 8-9, though there is also a leadership program for teenagers which is currently running a waitlist for middle schoolers. At the non-profit hub, there are also women’s classes offered. The stark difference, Hamel finds, in working with the varying age groups of women and girls, is that in laying the groundwork early, young girls haven’t experienced a lifetime of messaging that tells them they “can’t” or that this type of work is simply not in their arena. Girls at Work is a viable tool to open their eyes to their own potential. 

Having asked Hamel where she sees women’s role in the industry heading in the future, she has high hopes, and now so do I. She sees new traditions in the workforce and women infiltrating the industry in ways they weren’t previously able. With the huge shift that is already taking place, women are recognizing more and more every day that they have true value in the industry and a voice that is worthy of being heard. In fact, women are proving that mental skill and ability equals physical skill and ability in terms of value. Hamel’s excitement about women’s opportunities to pursue long-term careers in the industry gives her optimism for this future momentum. 

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Empowerment at Girls at Work means teaching girls to drill down beyond the usual gender role expectations and discover their full potential, no matter where life leads them. Courtesy Photo

For Girls at Work, there are many exciting ventures in the works and even more community offerings to keep watch for. Hamel continues to lead Team Build Programs for girls and companies alike, teaching the power of connection through building and teamwork. With the vision of being a central hub for women across industries, Hamel sees a future for Girls at Work that involves live music, non-profit events, wellness offerings, food and drink options focused on health, workshops and classes for women, lunchtime yoga, and so much more. 

Girls at Work receives most of their volunteers from local community organizations as well as long-time partner, Timberland, which sends employees to assist with handling donations, woodwork, and inspiring enthusiasm amongst teams.

After spending some time at Girls at Work, and with Hamel, I am confident that what they have going on is one of the most inspiring things happening here in the Manchester area. Many thanks to Hamel for giving me a spark of inspiration that I didn’t realize I was missing. I am thrilled to have connected with Hamel and to be in the network of what they are involved in. To stay tuned along with me, you can check out their Facebook page for regular updates and offerings or their website where you can register for programs and events.

MANCHESTERManchester Rising is an ongoing series of stories focused on the people, organizations and entities elevating and engaging our community. Send story/subject suggestions to publisher@manchesterinklink.com for consideration.


About this Author

Vanessa Edwards

Vanessa Edwards is an expressionist artist, writer, producer, and designer recently relocated from Brooklyn, NY to hometown Manchester, NH. Vanessa thrives on intuitive insight, creating work that aligns with her passions and personal values of experimentation and creative expression.