Center to Help Women Create Better Lives Through Building Trades

Reprinted with permission of The Pantagraph

By Paul Swiech, Health Reporter; Photos by Lewis Marien

BLOOMINGTON — There’s a lot of pounding, scraping, drilling and hammering going on at 1311 W. Olive St.

Those are the sounds of opportunity to Mary Campbell, Feli Sebastian and other volunteers involved in a community service project there.

The project is called Dreams are Possible. It involves turning the vacant first floor of an 1880s neighborhood grocery store building into a training center for low-income women to learn basic skills so they can determine whether they wish to pursue a career in the building trades.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Terrance Whitecotton, facility manager and apprenticeship coordinator for the Illinois Laborers and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program facility in Stanford.

“It would be great to see more women in the (building) trades,” Whitecotton said. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity to help women to be trained so they can apply for the trades so they can earn a good, living wage to support their families.”

The Dreams are Possible Training Center is the brainchild of Campbell, a retired social worker from Normal, and Sebastian, a psychologist from Bloomington.

“We work on efforts to give people a better opportunity for job security and housing,” Campbell said. “We focus on women who are working hard but can’t make ends meet. If you invest in women, you invest in their children and their communities.”

Campbell and Sebastian’s previous project was Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women, a program based at 616 W. Monroe St., Bloomington, to help McLean County women to develop skills so they don’t return to prison or jail. YWCA McLean County took over Labyrinth in 2016.

Women who are struggling financially in McLean County frequently are single mothers who work jobs that don’t pay well. The idea of Dreams are Possible is to provide them with hands-on skills in using various tools and knowledge of different building trades so the women can determine whether they want to apply for apprenticeship programs to become plumbers, sheet metal workers, laborers, electricians or carpenters.

“All those fields pay way better and have benefits,” Campbell said. “Women traditionally don’t think about those fields. It’s a culture thing. This would be a place to bridge that cultural gap.”

If mothers work jobs that pay better, they would only have to work one job, which means they would have more time to spend with their children, which would be beneficial for their children and community, Campbell and Sebastian said.

“This is a way to help kids in our community by helping their parents to be involved,” Campbell said.

The building at 1311 W. Olive St. is the former A.G. Erickson Grocery & Meats but the first floor hasn’t been occupied in years.

Using private, donated money, volunteers are renovating the first floor into a training lab, computer room, play area for children and kitchen. About $90,000 is needed to renovate and acquire the building, Campbell said.

Since January, about 40 people have volunteered on the renovation project. Among the dozen regular volunteers are Gary Klass and Hank Campbell, Mary’s husband.

“This is a collaboration that will have lasting value if it’s done well and done right,” Hank Campbell said as he and Klass worked on the building on Wednesday.

Katie Kurtenbach, associate support department supervisor with Home Depot in Normal, was among five Home Depot employees who volunteered on Thursday to install flooring in the building and scrape old slurry off the exterior brick of the building.

“I like that they are thinking about women in better jobs so they can help their families,” Kurtenbach said.

“We need to have more opportunities like this in the community for women to build their skills,” Jennifer Hatt, a Home Depot flooring specialist, said as she worked on the kitchen floor.

Campbell and Sebastian figure the renovation work will be done later this summer. They are working with human service agencies to identify women who may be interested in being trained and with representatives of the building trades to provide the training.

“We look forward to working with them,” said Rich Veitengruber, president of the Livingston and McLean Counties Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 197.

“It’s a good project to give young women an insight into what we do,” Veitengruber said. “If it spurs an interest, then they can apply for an apprenticeship.

“There is a need for women in the building trades,” Veitengruber said. “The women that we do have are some of our best workers.”

Anyone interested in helping to renovate the building at 1311 W. Olive St., Bloomington, should contact Mary Campbell at [email protected]

If you would like to help Dreams Are Possible help women find sustainable employment by providing them with free materials to learn trade jobs, please donate online. If you prefer to make a donation in another manner, click here for information.