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Everyday Heroes: Girls Build founder Katie Hughes

Everyday Hero Katie Hughes talks about her nonprofit, Girls Build.

If anyone ever asks Katie Hughes what the unofficial motto of her Portland-based nonprofit would be, she has an answer ready.

“’Helping Girls Try Stuff’,” she suggests, “because that’s all it is, letting girls go out in the world and try stuff. See what happens. And know that it’s OK if it doesn’t go perfectly.”

Hughes is our Everyday Hero. She’s the founder, executive director, and sole full-time employee of Girls Build. Her mission: to build curiosity and confidence in girls through the construction trades.

“We want girls to go out and build, but we also want them to gain confidence in themselves as they explore the world,” says Hughes, sitting in the wood shop at The ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi Avenue in Portland.

Girls Build is not even fully 2 years old yet. But it has already touched the lives of a couple hundred girls. This past summer, 164 girls -- eight to 14 years old -- attended Girls Build summer camps, where they got hands-on training in 10 different trades. Some of those trades include roofing, plumbing, electrical, painting, and fine carpentry.

Girls Build also teaches girls in an after-school program at The ReBuilding Center, and Hughes is finalizing a new outreach program at the Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, Oregon’s only jail for girls.

Hughes is a carpenter by trade. She remembers one of the first times she realized that tradeswomen were barely represented on job sites, and that the problem reflected a larger issue in our society.

It was at a Habitat for Humanity site.

“We’d get 40 volunteers to come out every Saturday,” she says, and half would be women. “The women were mentally prepared to do things like sweep, and clean, and put tools away. They weren’t mentally prepared to do things like run the chop saw or do framing or things like that.”

Hughes says teaching them those skills, and seeing their confidence grow, made a light go off in her head.

“That formed my baseline,” she says, “and that inspired what came next.”

Hughes went on to teach carpentry at Oregon Tradeswomen, and began doing youth programming there. Then she taught high-school wood shop. And she saw how boys and girls were coming in to class with entirely different life experiences; the boys had been doing things with dads and uncles for years and were building their résumés, but the girls were 10 years behind. They’d never been given a chance.

She knew she could help give girls that chance, so they could see that they’re capable of anything a boy can do. She saw how it would make a lifetime of difference.

“You know that you can be so confident in yourself, and proud of yourself, and that filters out into the rest of your life,” she says. “And when a woman has that opportunity, she also gets the opportunity to have higher self-esteem, to think well of herself, and also to drive around Portland -- or wherever she may live -- with her kids and say, ‘Hey, I built that. Mommy built that!’ You know, it’s pretty cool.”

So she started Girls Build. When KATU attended a camp in July of 2017 at the University of Portland, the girls were building a covered sandbox to be donated to a women’s shelter, and were learning how to wire a flashlight inside a ChapStick tube.

“It’s so important, because that little girl, when she goes back to school in September, she’s going to be more confident, she’s going to raise her hand a little more, she’s going to try new things a little more,” Hughes says. “It’s going to change the direction of her life, we hope.”

She says parents appreciate the new horizons for their daughters, and also see the value of having someone in the house learning these things.

“I’ve had quite a few parents who’ve said, ‘Well, somebody at our house has to know how to do it, because we don’t!’” Hughes laughs. “Every year when moms drop their kids off at camp, the say, ‘When’s our camp?’”

And Hughes especially sees the value for girls who may not be pushed toward college, or who may not know what the future holds for them. That’s why 1/3 of the girls who attend the summer camps do it for free. Hughes reaches out to foster care programs and shelters, to make sure more girls are getting a chance.

Their scholarships are covered by other campers’ tuition, and by private donations. Last year, 75 percent of Girls Build was funded by private donations.

This year, Hughes' mission was helped by famous TV personality Mike Rowe, who hosted the show “Dirty Jobs” for years and is a strong supporter of the trades. As part of his new Facebook-exclusive show “Returning the Favor," Rowe profiled Hughes and Girls Build, and donated a mobile trailer and $10,000 to the nonprofit. The trailer will help Hughes serve the girls in custody at Oak Creek.

“Maybe it’s a path and maybe not,” Hughes says, “but maybe it’s a path that they want to follow when they get out, to give them something to look forward to, and work toward.”

Hughes say the next dream is a shop to call her own, staffed with instructors so girls can stop in any time to learn and hone their skills. She hopes also to expand and to serve older girls.

“You’re actually saving money in the long-term,” she explains, “because you’re creating women who don’t have to call someone. It manifests in so many different ways, that confidence. It will carry with them through life, for sure.”

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