Volunteer Spotlight: Women’s workdays build interest in home improvement

  • Volunteers participate on an all-women's workday organized through Cover Home repair. (Diane Reinhardt photograph) XxxCourtesy photograph—Courtesy photograph

  • Volunteers participate on an all-women's workday organized through Cover Home repair. (Diane Reinhardt photograph) Diane Reinhardt photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/25/2022 9:44:15 PM
Modified: 6/29/2022 5:03:11 PM

Prior to this month, Angela Emerson had never used an impact driver.

“Now I want one,” the Wilder resident has decided.

That’s due to her participation in an All Women’s Work Project with Cover Home Repair, a nonprofit organization that sends teams of volunteers to work on home improvement projects, including building ramps and adding insulation, for lower-income Upper Valley residents. Cover started the women-only workdays this year as a way to recruit more volunteers, particularly those who do not have as much construction background under their tool belts.

“From my own experience of what it means to be a woman on a job site, it’s just easier to engage, easier to step into things I haven’t done before if there aren’t men around,” said Diane Reinhardt, home repair director at Cover. “Men are likely to, sort of, step in faster than I would have, and because of my own hesitation or my own uncertainty. If you have an all-women crew, you kind of circumvent that dynamic.”

Since construction and carpentry are such male-dominated fields, women may hold a belief, conscious or unconscious, that they cannot do that work.

“It’s not that men are the problem,” said Reinhardt, who has worked in carpentry for decades. “There are just some social dynamics that get in the way.”

That was one of the reasons Emerson was drawn to the All Women’s Work Project. While she has lived in the Upper Valley since 2008 and been familiar with Cover, she didn’t think much about volunteering for the nonprofit until she saw a Listserv post about the new program.

“I have no construction or carpentry skills whatsoever, so it’s important to work in an environment where you’ve got someone to teach you and that’s supportive,” Emerson said. “Quite frankly men will push you out of the way sometimes and say, ‘I can do this.’ That doesn’t happen on women’s workdays.”

The two women’s workdays Cover has held so far filled up quickly. There are more planned for July 8, 14 and 15 and for Aug. 11 and 12.

“Someone can show up, lean into their discomfort and try something new in a really supportive environment,” said Helen Hong, Cover’s executive director. “Removing that gender piece really seems to make a difference when you’re working around power tools and in a setting that’s perceived to be male-dominated.”

Laura Osborn, of Norwich, has volunteered on both all-women and mixed-gender work crews.

“No one has ever said, ‘Oh you’re a female; how about you do this?’ They’ve been inclusive, but I think this is even more so,” Osborn said.

One of the reasons for that is there’s little fear in trying new things. Many of the women who signed up for the workday Osborn participated in had little to no experience. They were all starting from the same place and learning together.

“It was very exciting for me because I got to learn how to use an electric planer,” said Osborn, a graphic designer at King Arthur Baking Co., who participated through a program at her employer that encourages volunteering. “I had never done that before and Diane showed me how to do a chalk line, and no one had ever explained that to me before.”

It’s also helped build Osborn’s confidence and demystify aspects of building projects. By breaking it down and learning each task, the work doesn’t seem so complicated.

“It’s very empowering,” Osborn said. There are some tasks that Osborn said she would shy away from doing at home, “but now it’s made me think, ‘Oh I could tackle that.’ ”

That’s another goal of the women’s workdays: Encouraging women to take on tasks they wouldn’t think to do.

“We’re told from a young age that we can’t do this stuff, and I’m like, ‘Do you knit, do you sew, do you cook?’ So you understand how things go together,” Reinhardt said. “It’s the same thing. Those are all skills that are transferable.”

The response so far has showed Reinhardt and Hong that women want to learn these skills, if the environment is right.

“I think it’s changing their perception of who is able to do this kind of work,” Hong said. “Nobody belongs in a space more than anybody else. Nobody is more entitled to that space than someone else based on their gender.”

Cover also received a grant to cover transportation and child care expenses for participants in the women-only days to make volunteering more accessible.

As for Emerson, she plans on signing up for future women-only workdays and becoming even more comfortable with power tools.

“The supervisors were just so awesome, always there, always responsive, never short, never judgmental, never critical,” Emerson said. “It was just so much fun.”

Editor’s note: For more information about women’s workdays, visit coverhomerepair.org, call 802-296-7241 or email volunteer@coverhomerepair.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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