When Julie Kuklinski came to South Mississippi from Wisconsin 10 years ago, she was prepared to help rebuild houses damaged or destroyed by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
What she did not expect was to fall in love with what she described as “the glue” that bonded East Biloxi — the women of the flooded and ravaged neighborhoods of the Point.
“I remember sitting on the stoop of a FEMA trailer with a woman and just talking and listening,” Kuklinski said. “I remember (thinking) in that moment, this person completely trusts me. We trusted each other.
“Having such different backgrounds, that moment made me fall in love with the place.”
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Kuklinski left her home state in 2006 as an AmeriCorps member. Her assignment was overseeing the demolition of houses in Biloxi.
As she began managing demolition crews, she noticed women were getting their hands dirty — by cleaning up after men.
Kuklinski learned women were afraid to use power tools or operate equipment.
“They were intimidated,” she said. “So I started helping women get acclimated to the tools.”
Then she started operating all-female demolition crews.
“I was working crazy hours on usually a woman’s house with a group of women,” Kuklinski said. “We would just jam out and work until we couldn’t work any longer. We would really connect with the homeowner to find out what they wanted and needed us to do. It was pretty gnarly.”
Kuklinski, who was working in an emergency room and making art before she came to Mississippi, said she was inspired by the matriarchs of East Biloxi. She remembers some women in particular who would manage to make meals for the whole neighborhood even though they’d lost everything in the storm.
“They were always taking care of others even though they had nothing,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that blew me away.”
Coming back to Biloxi
Kuklinski took a job in Chicago as a carpenter. She was building landscaping tools for rooftops for high-end clients. Some of her planter boxes sold for $1,200 per box.
“It was crazy,” she said. “I was working for a bunch of rich white people, and I did not feel remotely connected to what I was doing. There was no meaning to what I was doing, and that was really important to me.”
She said she couldn’t stop thinking about the women she’d met in East Biloxi. And when a job posting appeared online for director of the Women In Construction program, she said she applied because it was meant to happen.
In 2008, she was offered the position and moved back “home,” she said.
How Women In Construction works
Women In Construction is a program implemented by Moore Community House, a nonprofit organization that has provided child care for Biloxi area women with low incomes since 1924. Women In Construction, Kuklinski said, trains women to land financially stable jobs.
“We really believe that women need to be economically secure to support families everywhere,” Kuklinski said. “To do that, women need job opportunities and they need child-care services, and that’s what our two programs do.”
The programs last eight to 12 weeks. Kuklinski came in as director during the second class. Since then, 27 classes of women have graduated.
“We look at what women need to go to work,” she said. “Everything we do is driven from women saying what they want and need. We built the program from just listening and saying, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’”
Right now, Women In Construction works with area contractors and larger industries such as Ingalls Shipbuilding, to find graduates high-paying jobs. Kuklinski said on average, graduates find work making about $20 per hour.
“It’s pretty common for students to come into the program with two or three jobs,” she said. “In the end, they have one job working 40 hours a week rather than 80-plus.”
Why girl power is important
The program recently received a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, and Kuklinski said that will fund advanced training in areas such as electrical work, truck driving, welding and heavy-equipment operation.
“This is going to give us a platform to be able to do this on a larger scale and to show the workforce system what we know about what women need,” she said.
Kuklinski works lots of hours and said she tries to get into the classrooms and work with students when she can, but she’s always available to listen and give hugs.
“I do this for every single woman (who) walked through the doors, and I just believe in them and want to be there to support them,” she said. “Even on a bigger level, I really believe this impacts families and people. I know how strong these women are. They know how strong we are. Now, we need to show everybody else.”