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."
Biloxi is on the Gulf Coast and has a large tourist industry, though Kuklinski said the warmth and friendliness of its residents is comparable to Eau Claire.
And like Eau Claire, construction and trade industries are overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Christina Thurn, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Home Builders Association, said very few women are involved in the construction industry. Chippewa Valley Technical College spokesman Mark Gunderman echoed that sentiment, saying only about one or two women enter into the college's construction program per year -- a rate that hasn't been seen to noticeably change over the past decade.
Beyond Katrina After growing up with influences like her grandfather and uncles who worked in construction, Kuklinski always felt a nagging need to learn more about construction and building, even while attending St. Norbert College in De Pere.
Then came Hurricane Katrina, with a death toll closing on 2,000 and causing billions of dollars in property damage.
"I wanted to do something to help; I wanted to contribute," Kuklinski said.
As an AmeriCorps member, she made her way to Biloxi alone but ready for work. She was pulled into a volunteer camp and put her skills to work in mold remediation and demolition that included tearing down drywall and insulation to gut houses and eventually clear them of mold.
"I really felt connected to the people," she said, noting how kind and welcoming the residents were as she spent time talking with them on their porches, learning their stories and addressing their concerns.
A few months later and Kuklinski was in Chicago, working for a carpentry company, making five times as much money and feeling completely dissatisfied, as she often met wealthy customers who even balked at her entering their homes.
"I was thinking the whole time, 'Why am I not in Mississippi? Why am I doing this? It means nothing to me,' " she said. But then a job for executive director popped up at Women in Construction -- an organization that got its start in part from research conducted by a woman Kuklinski "swung hammers with."
Whether executive director or volunteer, Kuklinski was ready to head back to Biloxi. She danced for joy the day she was offered the job as director.
Currently, her employees include three women who completed the program and now work in support of it.
"These are amazing women who can share their strengths," she said.
Although they are making waves in the trade and construction industries, the women continue to face gender discrimination, Kuklinski said, like being told "not to go home and cry" if they get laid off. But Kuklinski is clear that the women know they have the support of an entire program and someone to rely on.
"We prepare our students for that so they know how to handle the situation and themselves with employees," she said. And while some still stereotype women as the painters and finishers, Kuklinski said many women aren't looking for that type of work and rather are interested in being framers and heavy equipment operators.
"We're not there to make the construction look pretty; we don't only do the finished work -- we do it all," she said.
Although her job poses its own challenges and difficulties, Kuklinski remains committed to her work and said she hopes to normalize female workers in these industries.
"To see the confidence that happens from when they walk through the doors to when they leave is amazing ... and that's the thing that keeps me alive," she said.