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While some kids spend their spring break vacationing on an island and relaxing on a beach, Shaylyn Denning, 11, was learning how to use a chop saw.

Denning is one of a dozen girls and non-binary middle school-age kids who are spending their break learning skills like carpentry and welding through Missoula YWCA's GRIT (Girls Representing in Trades) program.

The program aims to introduce girls and non-binary youth to various skilled trades such as construction, electrical, welding and auto mechanics. More broadly, it seeks to teach them that they’re capable of doing things they’re traditionally told they can’t.

By the time the students return to school, they’ll have constructed benches and a birdhouse, welded different objects, tinkered with small engines and learned the basics of bike mechanics.

“It’s really awesome to have them walk away feeling empowered to know how to pick up a torque wrench or know how to use a chop saw,” said GRIT coordinator Sam Duncan. “These skills are things they can carry for the rest of their lives.”

In addition to learning some new skills, the program gives the youth a feeling of empowerment that they can apply to all areas of their lives.

On Wednesday, Denning practiced raising and lowering the chop saw onto a piece of lumber in the woodshop of Home ReSource. It was Denning’s first time using a saw.

“It’s awesome but it’s hard because you have to press it down the whole time and push it back,” Denning said.

Denning was up for the task. She and the rest of the group watched demonstrations and practiced before constructing benches from repurposed wood. They’ll also learn to sand and stain the benches, which will eventually find a home outside the YWCA’s new domestic violence shelter that has yet to be built.

“These benches are going to be a place for people who need a safe spot to sit and spend time,” Duncan said.

GRIT was born under the YWCA’s long-standing GUTS program (Girls Using Their Strengths) to focus specifically on skilled trades and help build confidence and self-sufficiency in male-dominated fields.

GRIT offers a variety of programs; however, most are geared toward high school students or are offered as internships where students can earn class credit and a paycheck.

The spring break camp is currently the only GRIT program geared toward middle school students, so there’s not as much of a focus on career.

“It’s trying to make stuff like this a first positive experience, a welcoming experience,” said GUTS coordinator Tess Sneeringer.

Sneeringer said they also threw some “just for fun” activities like swimming into their schedule for the week.

Most kids come to the camp without prior skilled trades experience. The weeklong bevy of activities helps foster an interest and keeps kids coming back.

Kira Mitchell, 15, has attended numerous GRIT and GUTS camps and workshops, even those geared toward high school students although she’s still an eighth-grader at Meadow Hill Middle School.

Mitchell said she was hooked after her dad signed her up for her first program.

“They’re interesting; they get you hands-on and they give you experience in case you need to fix something,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell plans to continue building on what she’s learned when she attends high school. She’s already signed up for welding, mechanics and woodshop classes for her freshman year. However, learning trade skills isn’t the main reason Mitchell attends the camps.

“I enjoy mostly just being able to meet new people and branching out,” Mitchell said.

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