Have hammer, will travel

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By Jamie Swinnerton
Tompkins Weekly

 



After Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico in September, Maria Klemperer-Johnson knew she wanted to help. What better way to help than to put to use the professional skill that she teaches other women: carpentry. Back in 2012, Klemperer-Johnson started Hammerstone School in Trumansburg to teach women (and non-women) building and carpentry skills in an effort to get more women into the industry. Now, she wants to bring that goal to Puerto Rico to help the island, a U.S. territory, rebuild, while also increasing the construction workforce that is currently overwhelmed by teaching the women of Puerto Rico the skills she has taught women right here in Tompkins County.

A few weeks ago, Klemperer-Johnson and her colleague Julie Kitson, a construction manager in the Ithaca area, went to Puerto Rico to meet with some friends on the ground and decide what the best course of action would be. It was decided that the Hammerstone School group’s skills would best be utilized to help rebuild the house of a woman named Pucha in the town of Gurabo, about 45 minutes outside of San Juan.

“When we went down there on this reconnaissance trip, we didn’t know exactly what our work trip was going to look like,” Klemperer-Johnson said. “At that point, I thought there was a possibility that we could organize a Hammerstone trip that was very similar to the types of classes that we run here in the States where women come, we teach them skills, and then they immediately get to practice those skills in the construction of something.”

But, she said it became clear that organizing a trip like that would not be the first step.

“Our first step needs to be to get down there and do some real work,” she said.

Through a friend who has been in Puerto Rico on a volunteer trip for several weeks, Klemperer-Johnson and Kitson were introduced to a few individuals who consider themselves a “non-organization,” an unofficial group called Rogues on Roofs whose only mission is to put tarps on houses with no covering, and put roofs on houses with only tarps. It was through Rogues on Roofs that Pucha’s house was chosen as the first project for the Hammerstone School group.

“Her metal roof was blown off during the hurricane and she was basically left without a roof for four months,” Klemperer-Johnson said.

About a week before the reconnaissance trip, Rogues on Roofs installed a new metal roof on Pucha’s home. But she still can’t move back into the wood-framed structure. The most hurricane-resistant housing in Puerto Rico are cement block houses with cement roofs, but Pucha’s house is predominantly a wood frame house. The plan, Klemperer-Johnson said, is to tear off all the plywood on the walls, deal with whatever rot and mold they find, update the electricity, put up new wall covers and give them a fresh coat of paint, and tile the floor.

“We organized a group of professional women builders from the Ithaca area,” she said. “If our fundraising is successful, we will all travel down there and do this project for Pucha.”

While there, Klemperer-Johnson said the group will also be following the example of Rogues on Roofs and putting on new roofs for a few people in need.
The group will be staying at The Equus Center, which operated as an equine therapy facility before the hurricane. Edmundo Jimenez, the owner of the facility, has been letting groups like Rogues on Roofs and the Hammerstone School stay at the facility for free. While there, the Hammerstone group will likely also be doing some work on Jimenez’s farm which was devastated in the hurricane. Klemperer-Johnson said Jimenez has decided not to reopen the therapy center.

“He invested 10 years of his life and his life savings in creating this thing, which was doing really wonderful work for some very disadvantaged people, and it just got completely destroyed,” Klemperer-Johnson said.

Just like here in Tompkins County, Klemperer-Johnson will be doing what she knows and teaching women carpentry and construction skills. One of the group’s afternoon’s in Puerto Rico will be spent at the YWCA of San Juan, teaching a skills building workshop to the girls and women of the YWCA.

“This is an opportunity for us to bring out passion to see more women in the trade, and the educational model that we’ve built around Hammerstone School to take it down there and share that with them,” Klemperer-Johnson said.

But that’s the short-term vision. In the long-term, Klemperer-Johnson wants to make several more trips to the island, ideally with volunteers trained by the Hammerstone School who are ready and willing to help rebuild. But the details and organization behind those efforts are still in the early stages. What she does know is that there are people in the area who want to help. Since Hammerstone members announced they were even thinking of organizing a trip to Puerto Rico, Klemperer-Johnson said they have been inundated with requests from former students and people who are on the school’s newsletter, asking to go with them.
“We want to make sure we are structuring it in a way that they are immediately effective,” she said.

Gurabo, where the group will be doing most of their work, is within what Puerto Rian’s are calling “the bubble.” Areas within an hour’s drive from San Juan, while still in need of a lot of help, have received the majority of support services and funding. Klemperer-Johnson said she hopes that future trips and projects could take place outside the bubble where even less help has been given.

Julie Kitson is a local construction manager who will be part of the group going to Puerto Rico has known Klemperer-Johnson for many years. She and Klemperer-Johnson saw this “bubble” first-hand during their reconnaissance trip earlier this month. Part of the reason that the rebuilding effort has been a struggle is a lack of available labor. There is so much work to do, and not enough skilled workers to do it. Both Kitson and Klemperer-Johnson see this moment as an opportunity to grow that workforce by bringing the Hammerstone School model to the island.

“The City of Gurabo, there’s some momentum going on there,” Kitson said. “We found a lot of reception for what we were bringing down. This idea of we want to come down and help with the rebuilding process, the cleanup process. But we also want to be training women alongside of us. Not only to become self-sufficient. There’s a really major labor shortage down there, which is what’s adding to the length of time that things are taking.”

Back in December, Lisa Howard had just quit her full-time job and was looking for opportunities when she found out about a volunteer trip to Puerto Rico. After spending several weeks on the island jumping at every opportunity to expand and test her construction skills she flew back home. But she wasn’t there long. On Jan. 25 she was back on the island working with Rogues on Roofs.

“We’re just a group of people that came out here for a volunteer project over the holidays,” Howard said. “We were part of a larger group, and then during our time here we saw a need to do some specific work so we put together a work party to come back and we’ve been here since January 25, specifically working to put roofs on people’s houses in the town of Gurabo.”

Her volunteer trip is over at the end of February but before she leaves she will be helping the Hammerstone School group with the logistics and necessary preparation for their own trip. There have been talks of further collaborations between Rogues on Roofs and Hammerstone, but first, they want to complete the project they have decided on. Howard said there is still plenty of work to be done. Life on the island won’t be the same for a very long time.

“There’s definitely a sense, when you talk to people, of a before Maria and after Maria,” she said.

Right now, Hammerstone School is raising money for their first trip over. The group has set up a GoFundMe to raise $15,000 for travel expenses, supplies, and to compensate their host.

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