Girls at Work: Celebrating empowerment with more room to build at new Bedford Street workshop

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Family members of Cassie Heppner sign a wall in the Cassie Power Room workshop during Saturday’s Girls at Work Inc open house. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – There’s more going on at the new Girls at Work, Inc. HQ than woodshop with attitude. The rustic and welcoming wide-open spaces, adjacent to the SEE Science Center and FIRST in the millyard at 200 Bedford Street, is now open for empowerment.

Saturday was the official grand reopening after moving operations from 4 Elm St., and Mayor Joyce Craig did the honors, slicing through a piece of wood molding rather than a ribbon. With a bi-partisan assist from Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent in the upcoming election, Dan Feltes, each held an end to steady the wood as the mayor, using a hand saw, made it official. [View the ribbon-cutting here via Facebook.]

The organization was established 20 years ago on a solid and simple foundation: It’s time to edit the traditional script that’s been handed to girls, and put some actual tools in their hands. Teaching them the skill-building that leads directly to actual building is a great equalizer. Way back when, founder Elaine Hamel knew as well as any woman that the best remedy for powerlessness is empowerment. She is the metaphorical mortar that holds it all together, taking that golden nugget of an idea and turning it into a thriving program worth more than its weight in gold bricks. Hamel and her crew have spread the gospel of making, doing and building to more than 20,000 future women, and counting.

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A portrait of Cassie Heppner hangs in the work space dedicated to her memory. Photo/Carol Robidoux

After the “ribbon” was cut small group tours were conducted of the spacious new digs, but not before Hamel acknowledged Cassie Heppner, a beloved member of the Girls at Work family, who died suddenly and tragically in February. Heppner was a senior marketing manager for Timberland PRO, a Girls at Work partner. Her sister, Eleanor Hershey, was there with family members Saturday to help launch the Cassie Power Shop, dedicated to the memory of Heppner.

“We physically lost Cassie in February but I have not accepted it, nor will I, so we created this beautiful room for Cassie … we’ll continue to keep that room full of energy and life, and we’ll continue to keep [the family] in our thoughts and in our space, because we’re going to continue to heal together,” Hamel said.

Like any successful construction project, this one came together well ahead of schedule, despite a global pandemic, and well below budget thanks to donations, volunteer support and several business partners and benefactors, including Harvey Construction, BOSCH, and former FIRST Robotics CEO  Don Bossi  who offered the space after learning their previous building had been sold. He has since joined the Girls at Work board.

“I need you to take a look at this space,” Hamel said, directing visitors to do a visual 360. “There’s a lot of crazy going on in the world right now – I don’t know if you’ve noticed – this right here is what ‘stronger together’ looks like. This space was supposed to cost half-a-million dollars. It cost less than half of that because the community stepped up like you cannot imagine.”

Hamel can’t wait for the pitter-patter of little workboots to take over the place, but until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, she’ll have to be patient. One workaround to the usual afterschool classes and summer camp program has been creating and delivering project “kits” with elements needed to construct things like window boxes and birdhouses from home.

The place is all form and function. In addition to two woodshops, there is a lumber storage area and a state-of-the-art STEM workshop including 3D printers with dedicated space for the Girls at Work robotics team and for expanded science, technology, engineering and math programming.

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Lil Sunny the Camper, offspring of the ManchVegas Brew Bus, serving up seasonal coffee drinks for the grand opening. Photo/Carol Robidoux

The open house included sign-ups, live music and free seasonal coffee drinks brewed up by Bill and Alli Seney of the ManchVegas Brew Bus, who had their secondary vehicle, Lil Sunny The Camper, a mobile brewpub, on display.

“When my daughter flexes her muscles she shows me her elbows,” said Bill Seney, demonstrating with a 90-degree flex of his forearms. He’s father to two daughters, including an infant and a preschooler. He encourages his oldest, Alton, “to be a scientist and reach for the stars,” and wants both of them to be “empowered, capable, resilient and strong-willed,” like their mom.

“She sets a great example,” Seney said of wife Ally, a singer-songwriter and spark-plug for what two years ago became the family Brew Bus business.

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Girls at Work Volunteer Joe Gallagher puts away some pliers in the storage drawers he donated to Girls at Work. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Joe Gallagher, a retired member of Heat & Frost Insulators union, took pleasure in conducting a private tour of the place. Not only has Gallagher been an ever-present volunteer mentor, but since downsizing to a smaller living space, he has donated much of his personal workshop to the cause, from tools to storage space. He helped build the woodworking tables, hardware for the “secret” door that leads to the wood storage room, and fashioned a unique “nautical mantle” that doubles as a bar, one of 20 items currently up for auction to support the program. Online bidding closes Sept. 27 at noon.

Gallagher opens another hidden door that leads to the Kindness Room, a closet jammed with work boots, backpacks, sweatshirts, T-shirts and more. It’s one of his favorite parts of the whole.

“Anything and everything you could want or need is in there,” Gallagher says. It’s one of Hamel’s favorite parts, as well. Because if there’s one thing she’s learned above all else, it’s that you can give a girl a pep-talk on being anything she wants to be, or you can give her a hammer and some nails and teach her how to build her dreams into reality.

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Online Auction: To bid on 20 items built by Girls at Work, click here. Auction ends Sept. 27 at noon.

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!