More Than Money
Issue #36

Money and Work

Table of Contents

“Giving Back: The Investment That Paid Off”

By Chris Rodell 1

At 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 book, Brick By Brick: A Woman's Journey (Spinner 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 Consolidated Brick.

If any 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 benefits.

"There was nothing going well in my life," Donohue says. "I felt like I was a loser."

After 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.'"

As 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 Chris Rodell, People Magazine , pp. 83-84, July 29, 2002. To learn more about Brick By Brick, visit: www.lynndonohue.com .

To her 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.

"It was love at first sight," she says of the arduous work.

Her 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).

While hazing newcomers was a routine practice at the work site, Donohue's treatment was far harsher.

"Once, someone locked me inside a stinking port-o-john for an hour," she recalls.

Still, she never complained about the insults and obscenities.

"I decided to use all their taunts and put-downs as fuel to succeed," she says.

It worked. 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 contest.

"She's the only woman who's ever won," says former union vice president Tom McIntyre. "She's the real deal."

In 1982, 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.

Donohue contributed $40,000 of the center's original annual $120,000 budget. 2

"She 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."

That's 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."

"Working 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 important.

One 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.

I 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 Born Rich , directed by Jamie Johnson (Wise and Good Film, 2003)

Resources 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. Wider Opportunities for Women
www.work4women.org provides resources and a virtual community to help increase women's representation in high-wage jobs that are considered non-traditional for women.

Workplace Solutions
www.workplacesolutions.org 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.

U.S. Department of Labor
www.doleta.gov/atels_bat/ provides resources for apprentices and their employers.


1 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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