By Elizabeth Dohms
The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
Julie Kuklinski was never a girly-girl and can’t be described as a tomboy.
She’s merely hands-on — a painter, a musician, fan of the outdoors, a jewelry-maker — and comfortable with a wrecking bar and framing hammer.
Perhaps the 34-year-old’s most-used tool is her desire to help.
Hailing from a long line of “strong women,” Eau Claire native Kuklinski sprinted to action to help those displaced by the deadly 2005 Hurricane Katrina, prompting a long-term stay in Biloxi, Miss., as head of a program that’s helping to rebuild the landscape and employing disadvantaged women along the way.
Women in Construction was established in 2008 to equip its students with skills to work in trade jobs including general construction, shipbuilding and welding, among others. More than 260 women have graduated from the program, which boasts a 70 percent placement rate.
The women have contributed to the construction of about 200 buildings, Kuklinski said.
“Supporting each other to make things better is so inspiring,” she said.
Many of the women are of color, Kuklinski said, and vary in age from in their late teens to 60s.
“We just placed a woman in a shipyard who’s 58 years old,” she said. “She’s amazing and doing really well.”
Many women face dire circumstances like domestic violence and homelessness. Some work three jobs to make ends meet and still others are looking for ways to better support their children.
According to U.S. census data, about 25 percent of Mississippi’s women and more than one-third of its children live in poverty. Minimum wage at $7.25 prevents a family of two from jumping the poverty line, but women who graduate the Women in Construction program and land a job can see wage averages of $18 per hour.
“Some people think it’s as easy as working hard. It’s not,” Kuklinski said. “The students come to us working very hard. We’re giving them the skills they need to get good, high-paying jobs.”