Shaping a new life through Carpentry program for women launching in September

Dennis Hanagan –

For entrepreneur Jesse Darby of Leslieville, it’s not hard to hammer together a compliment for Dixon Hall’s Mill Centre. After all, it helped him launch a carpentry career and his own business.

“The program has been really great for me. They’ve helped me with my own company,” said the eager 23-year-old at the Carlaw Ave. shop where he was building a tabletop.

The Mill Centre provides carpentry training for marginalized people and has been around for about a decade.

“It started as a shop on Mill St. in the Distillery District. That’s why the name Mill Centre,” explained manager Haris Blentic.

Today, the centre is a state-of-the-art workshop where professionals teach construction trade skills to at-risk youth, women overcoming abuse, and aboriginals. All program participants are prepared to join the skilled trades work force in partnership with agencies like Miziwe Biik Aboriginal Employment and Training, the YWCA, and Mahogany Harbour. George Brown College also helps students with their academic upgrading.

The carpentry program began when Dixon Hall started engaging residents at one of its shelters in wood working as a way for them to build social skills. The idea was that participants would build custom-made furniture and sell it to pay for the program and themselves.

But places like Home Deport and Ikea made it hard.

“We found it difficult to compete with other carpentry organizations,” said Blentic, noting that now the centre operates with contributions from corporate partners and by holding fund-raising events. In May, a fund-raising event was held at the Berkeley Fieldhouse on Queen St. E. “It was quite successful,” Blentic said.

Money from that event launched a new program in August in partnership with StopGap in which participants will build small wooden ramps to assist the disabled getting into storefronts.

The Mill Centre is grateful to count Daniels, Loblaws, and RBC among its corporate partners. For the new Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park, the Mill Centre was contracted to create furnishings for the Paintbox Café inside. “Daniels contracted us to provide that. That’s how we create programs,” said Blentic.

In September another program is starting to help women escaping domestic violence to learn carpentry as a trade.

Carpentry instructor Bill Kealey said part of his job is to get his students used to work life.

“Part of our program is that we want them to work in the system, that they’re going to come in at 8 o’clock in the morning. They’re going to do their academic upgrading, they’re going to do their shop,” said Kealey.

“It’s not militaristic. It’s the development of [behaviours like] showing up on time for a job, being punctual and being faithful to the five-day week,” said Kealey.

New students can be a little apprehensive when they enter the program. “There’s a bit of shyness and a little bit of intimidation about using the equipment,” Kealey said.

But by graduation eight weeks later “they’re inspired,” he confirmed.

The centre sticks with graduates after they complete the program to support them in their search for work.

Darby is one of the centre’s success stories. “They helped me gain more experience in the trades (by) having more confidence and having a support system around me and keeping the confidence in me to start my own business.”

Darby is owner and operator of Darby Design and Build, an aboriginal community-based company that performs restoration and building work.

“Right now we’re having a shortage of trades workers,” said Darby, “and what’s good with the Mill Centre is they’re taking the initiative to get people back into the trades.”

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