After five years of teaching local women carpentry skills, Hammerstone School's Maria Klemperer-Johnson has begun to help the women of Puerto Rico to rebuild their homes.Tell us about how you arrived at a career in the trades.
I always loved to build, even as a kid, though I never considered a career in the trades until I was an adult. In college, I majored in computer science. Looking back on it now, I realize that that was the most ‘legitimate’ way to manifest my love of creating. However, after working for several years as a programmer in Seattle in the 90s, I discovered that I didn't enjoy the culture. I didn't enjoy staring at a screen and sitting indoors all day, and I preferred to create something tangible rather than virtual.
When I quit programming, I considered going into carpentry or woodworking, but I got into a Geology PhD program at Cornell. Geology had been my minor in college. I think I chose that minor because it filled in the gaps that were missing in computer science - I got to work outside using my body and my mind. I quit that program because in the end I wasn't passionate about the subject matter, and more importantly, I really missed building something concrete. At this point, I followed my passion and got a job in a cabinet shop, then worked for a residential carpenter. Carpentry satisfied all my desires of being outdoors and using both my body and my mind to a creative end.
A Hammerstone carpenter chatting with a Puerto Rican community member
What differences do you now see between predominantly-male job sites and job sites with female crews?
We've had many clients respond positively to the fact that our construction team is predominantly female. Clients have commented on how respectful we are, that we bring a different energy, that we keep our job site clean, that we communicate well. This is not to say there aren't male carpenters who bring those same traits to the job site. However, these are soft skills that are still more culturally ingrained in women and girls than in men and boys. They’re traits that often aren't emphasized in conventional trades training, especially when most carpenters learn their trade on a job site rather than in school.
During your Puerto Rico trip, Hammerstone began to rebuild local single mom Pucha's home. What did she and the other family members you met think about your woman-led crew?
Yes, we also worked to renovate Pucha's house, which had been so water damaged in 4 months without a roof that she couldn't move back in, despite having a new roof installed in February. Pucha herself was overwhelmed with gratitude to have us show up. She said she had been praying for months to receive help to move home. The fact that we were a group of women was icing on the cake. She's a tough, DIY woman in her own right, who worked hard the first time around to build and decorate her home. She told us, “I’d do it myself again, but I'm 60, not 20 anymore!"
Pucha regaled us with stories of the aid work she had done herself years ago as a missionary in Central America. It felt like things coming full circle to be able to bring support to her.
Everyone in the tight-knit neighborhood was curious and supportive of our work. Family members lent tools and watched, commenting, of course, as we tiled the floor. Pucha's 20-year-old grandson was caught on the local TV exclaiming, "they work as hard as the men do!"
All in all, we felt extremely supported and appreciated as family members and neighbors cooked us lunch and dinner, brought us water and soda, and greeted us walking around the neighborhood.