ITHACA, N.Y. — A crew of women is heading to Puerto Rico to help rebuild homes damaged in Hurricane Maria. The women will not only be building, they will also be teaching other women the basics of building.

The effort is being led by Hammerstone School, a carpentry school for women based in Trumansburg. In early March, a team of about seven women will travel to Gurabo, Puerto Rico, located about 20 miles south of San Juan.

The women will help repair the home of a woman who has been displaced since the hurricane in September. The storm tore off her roof and rain has damaged the interior. Recently, Rogues on Roofs, a volunteer organization Hammerstone has connected with, has replaced the roof but more work is needed on the house to repair water damage and make it habitable again.

Their base in Gurabo will be the Equus Center, owned by Edmundo Jimenez. Before the hurricane, Jimenez offered equine therapy, but his farm was destroyed and his horses are without shelter. The women will help rebuild the stables while staying there for about 10 days.

Before and after image of the Equus Center. Provided photo illustration.

Hammerstone School was started by Maria Klemperer-Johnson in 2013. She has been a carpenter in the local area since 2002. She said she has always noticed a lack of women on job sites and when the opportunity arose to teach a class about building a tiny house, she took it. First, she offered a series of six Saturday classes to teach carpentry skills and frame a friend’s tiny house. Eight women signed up almost immediately, she said. Since then, the class offerings have grown  and hundreds of women have attended classes at Hammerstone School.

Having the classes for women specifically is important, Klemperer-Johnson said, so they can learn without judgment as they tackle the basics. Men traditionally have worked in carpentry roles, and many boys have grown up learning the basics of tools, while many women have not, she said.

“That makes it more challenging for women to learn these skills knowing that if they fail on their first attempt at using a circular saw, using a drill to drive a screw, just hammering a nail, that they’re seen as an example that women can’t do this work,” Klemperer-Johnson said. “So it’s really important to me — and I think it’s really important to women who sign up for our classes — that we’re just taking that whole issue out of the equation. You don’t need to prove your gender the first time you try to hammer a nail for the first time or drive a screw for the first time. All of these hands-on skills are things that take hundreds of repetitions to become proficient at.”

The city the women are headed does have electricty, but more than 900,000 people in Puerto Rico are still living without power five months after Hurricane Maria. The damage and lack of power have led to many people leaving the territory, Bloomberg reported just two months after the storm. One side effect of that is a loss of workers. When speaking with people while visiting Gurabo for three days to plan, Klemperer-Johnson found that many people are on a months-long waiting list for repairs, even if they have the money and materials.

In line with the mission of the Hammerstone School, Klemperer-Johnson and the group will mentor in addition to build. They are organizing women to work alongside them on house projects and are also organizing a skill-building workshop with the YWCA in San Juan. They are also working with the mayor of Gurabo. She said she hopes teaching basic carpentry skills will serve as a “jumping off point” for women to learn more after they leave.

“Getting that hands-on guidance for those first few tools is really pretty critical, to have someone telling you the right way to use the circular saw, then you can go ahead and learn a table saw with a lot more confidence that you’re doing it safely and the right way. So we would really like to bring that type of confidence building and skill building workshop to Puerto Rico.”

In addition to helping with repairs and getting work done, Klemperer-Johnson said she and the other women in the group want to set an example and show that women can do construction and carpentry work.

“It’s important for us to provide an example in an even more patriarchal culture that women are capable of this work, especially at a time when everything has been so destroyed that they’re just starting over again, so it seems like an opportunity to actually address the fact that maybe women are a really important part of this rebuilding effort. We’re hoping to serve as an example of that and we’re also looking for ways to actively involve Puerto Rican women in our our work.”

The group is trying to raise $15,000 to help cover the costs of their trip, including building materials, tools, food and lodging and other supplies. More information is available at their GoFundMe page.

Featured image: From left to right, group members Julie Kitson, Melissa Galliher, Christina Alario, Maria Klemperer-Johnson, Crista Shopis and Rebekah Carpenter. Provided photo.

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.