age 15, Lynn Donohue was a junior high school dropout. Her
life changed when she saw a sign for Women in Construction
(W. I. C.), a government-sponsored training program for
women entering non-traditional careers. She became a bricklayer
in an almost exclusively male field, and, later, the sole
owner of a major construction company. Her award-winning
Brick By Brick: A Woman's Journey
Publications, Inc., 2000) recounts the challenges she faced
and how she overcame them. As a result of Ms. Donohue's
entrepreneurial success, she founded Brick By Brick, a community
organization established to help high school dropouts and
others struggling with career choices. In 2001, she was
the recipient of the Boston Celtics' "Hero Among Us" award.
Ms. Donohue currently works in sales and consulting for
kid in 1970s New Bedford, Massachusetts might have been
voted Least Likely to Succeed, it was Lynn Donohue (née
Davidian). The third of five children from a broken home,
she took her first drink at 13 and got into Quaaludes, pot,
and heroin. Dropping out of school at 15, she slept in empty
houses, then moved into a hippie commune where an older
friend coached her on how to lie about her age to get welfare
was nothing going well in my life," Donohue says. "I felt
like I was a loser."
doing 30 days in jail during a Florida road trip for stealing
a jar of peanut butter, Donohue, then 16, was living in
an old car. Her father saw her on the street a year later
and offered her a job bartending at his saloon. She accepted
but had second thoughts after a biker fight in the bar turned
ugly. "There was blood everywhere," she says. "I hid behind
some boxes and prayed, 'Oh, God, don't let me die.'"
the first female member of Bricklayer's Local 39,
Donohue left her imprint on many buildings. But she
is proudest of a two-story edifice in New Bedford,
Massachusetts which she didn't construct. There, teenage
kids are learning to play keyboards, guitars, and
drums. Others are learning graphic design or creating
volunteer projects. Some are even publishing their
own magazine. Adults can sign up for a course on entrepreneurship.
Brick By Brick, a community organization, is Donohue's
brainchild and her passion. It was started with her
support and is her way of giving back after making
a $3 million dollar fortune in construction. Says
Donohue: "My goal is to use the money I've made and
the things I've learned to help at-risk kids who are
just like I was."
-From "Hard Hat, Soft Heart: A messed-up kid who made
millions, Lynn Donohue decided to help others," by
, pp. 83-84, July
29, 2002. To learn more about Brick By Brick, visit:
relief, Donohue was soon laid off from the bar; one day, while
waiting in line for her unemployment check, she saw a poster
for a women's constructiontrade training course and signed
up. In 1979 she began a four-year bricklaying apprenticeship,
hoping to earn upwards of $17 an hour.
was love at first sight," she says of the arduous work.
enthusiasm for the job helped her give up drugs; a few years
later Donohue stopped drinking, too. She also earned a GED
(General Equivalency Degree).
hazing newcomers was a routine practice at the work site,
Donohue's treatment was far harsher.
someone locked me inside a stinking port-o-john for an hour,"
she never complained about the insults and obscenities.
to use all their taunts and put-downs as fuel to succeed,"
Although exhausted after a day's work lifting 50-pound blocks,
the 5-foot-3 Donohue would go home and practice her craft.
Each night for a year she built and un-built a brick wall
in her basement-until she was able to win the union's apprenticeship
the only woman who's ever won," says former union vice president
Tom McIntyre. "She's the real deal."
Donohue married her husband, Tim, and with a bank loan started
Argus Construction. In 1997, Lynn sold the assets of Argus
and took a high-paying sales job with a brick distributor.
She wanted to put her wealth to good use, so she started
a community organization to help the people of New Bedford.
Only three months after the organization was launched, it
had already attracted 100 kids and 100 adults to its programs.
contributed $40,000 of the center's original annual $120,000
provides funding, generates donations, brings in the speakers,
and is the inspiration for what Brick By Brick is all about,"
says executive director Tracy Furtado. "We have dropouts
come here who can relate to her story."
how Donohue wants it. "So many of the people I used to run
with are dead from drugs, suicide, AIDS," she says. "I consider
myself lucky to have escaped. I want kids to know it's a
lot harder to fail in this world than it is to succeed.
I've done both, and I know."
Hard Makes Me Feel Good"
I showed up at college in the fall of 1994 for a couple
weeks, but college was just out of control. I had problems
with depression. I was quitting the sports teams and sitting
around in my room and not really reading the books I was
supposed to be reading. My parents came up and we decided
that I was going to take some time off. At first I thought
it was going to be a semester, or maybe the whole year,
but it ended up being about two years. It also ended up
being probably the best two years of my life-and the most
of the jobs I had was working in an oil fields services
company down in Texas. I was working with Cajuns and Hispanic
guys who had never been to high school, and here I was,
this kid who had been in all of these fancy boarding schools.
I was an alien to them and that was hard at first, but
I think they also learned some things from me. At lunchtimes,
they'd ask me all kinds of trivia questions. They'd get
a kick out of the fact that I knew all of these things-
like what the capital of Chile is. Really, what I learned
during that time was that working hard makes me feel good.
think that for a lot of kids who grow up with money or
an affluent lifestyle, that lifestyle can hold them back
from discovering their passions and what really makes
them feel good about life."
-Josiah Hornblower, heir to the Vanderbilt and Whitney
fortunes Excerpted and adapted from
directed by Jamie Johnson (Wise and Good Film, 2003)
to Support Women in Non-traditional Careers
Editor's Note: According to the U.S. Department of Labor,
non-traditional careers are occupations in which women comprise
less than 25% of the workforce.
provides resources and a virtual community to help increase
women's representation in high-wage jobs that are considered
non-traditional for women.
offers a national online network of resources to help employers,
unions, and apprenticeship programs recruit, train, place,
and retain women in high-wage, non-traditional occupations.
Department of Labor
provides resources for apprentices and their employers.
Originally published under the title "Hard Hat, Soft Heart:
A messed-up kid who made millions, Lynn Donohue decided to
help others," by Chris Rodell, People Magazine, pp. 83-84,
July 29, 2002. Adapted and reprinted with permission.
2 The community organization is now known
as the nonprofit Brick By Brick. Since it was started, Brick
By Brick has helped 500 people directly, and thousands indirectly,
through its magazine and other services. Donohue continues
to help support the center financially.
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