With the ease of someone who has done it many times before, Rita Baker raises a heavy sheet of drywall against a wall. The Jacksonville resident is doing what typically is considered a man’s job, but on this job site, she is one of many women and men volunteering their time and skills to renovate the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Soutel Drive in Jacksonville.
“I love the confidence that it gives me,” said Baker. “As a result of the interaction with different volunteers, I’ve grown personally and professionally, made new friends, and contributed to the growth of others.”
Women represent only 3.9% of tradespeople working in construction nationally, according to an Institute for Women’s Policy Research report that cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
By contrast, the Witnesses’ construction projects regularly see large percentages of female volunteers, both skilled and unskilled.
“We would be lost without our vast number of women volunteers,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Their attention to detail, high quality of work and infectious enthusiasm are all vital to the success of our building projects.”
When the Witnesses moved their headquarters from Brooklyn, New York, upstate to the town of Warwick in recent years, the construction project drew some 27,000 volunteers from around the country, 25% of whom were women — like Kierstin Golec of Huntington, Massachusetts.
Golec and fellow female volunteers were assigned to site excavation efforts within days of arriving on the project. They received intensive training to operate heavy equipment right alongside the men on the crew. Golec vividly recalls the first time she came face to face with the dump truck she’d soon be driving.
“I approached the vehicle, and the tires were taller than me!” she said. “It was a surreal, humbling and exciting experience.”
Reflecting on the three years she spent volunteering on the build, Golec says she won’t forget the confidence shown in her and other female volunteers.
“All of us, men and women, were trained so we could be involved to the fullest extent possible,” she said. “They displayed a lot of trust in us equally, and I’m forever grateful to have been treated with such dignity.”
Baker expressed a similar sentiment about the Soutel Drive Kingdom Hall renovation. “I’ve obtained and sharpened skills in the construction trade by working alongside experienced tradespersons. Everyone is rewarded with a sense of accomplishment.”
Volunteers have come to the site from the Jacksonville area and from as far away as Pennsylvania. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.