DAVOREN PARK, Australia — No one really knows when backyard sheds became meaningful to men, as a retreat and a place to tinker. But in the late 1990s, Australia made them communal. Hundreds of men’s sheds, as they came to be known, popped up across the country — where retirees or the out of work could stave off loneliness and depression by working on creative projects, gaining new skills and socializing.
All of which got Raelene Wlochowicz thinking: What about the women? It was the end of 2019, and she was about to retire after 28 years of working in Australia’s juvenile justice system. People kept asking her what she was going to do with her time.
“I don’t know,” she’d say. “I’m ready to finish my work life, but I’m not finished with my life.”
Always active, a working-class grandmother with bright red hair and a nose ring, she couldn’t stand the idea of playing cards in a senior center or sitting around gossiping over $4 coffee.
She knew that the first men’s shed had opened not far away, on the fancier side of Adelaide, the most industrial of Australia’s major cities and the capital of South Australia.
She also knew that women in her counted-out community of Davoren Park — a suburb north of Adelaide, where unemployment hovers at 24 percent — needed new skills, not to mention a reason to smile. It’s not easy living in a place of stolen pride, with too many secondhand charity stores and crumpling factories left empty for so long that the “for lease” signs out front have faded to dull gray.
So in March 2020, she and a few friends opened the first women’s shed in the state.
It’s not an actual shed — they’ve taken over the cafeteria and a few classrooms of an abandoned high school. And while there are tools, most of the fixing and improving that goes on here is work that requires more than a hammer.
The idea was to create a place where women who had been “sitting on the bones of their butt,” as Ms. Wlochowicz put it bluntly, could be kept productive and engaged. Instead of fixing things, they aim to renovate lives too easily discarded.
“There are so many women who have no one, or nothing,” said Ms. Wlochowicz, 63. “Once they come here, they come alive again.”
The source of revival — or so it seemed during a couple of recent visits — appeared to be shared activity. In a building where one half looks as yellow and brown as a half-smoked cigarette, the women’s shed in the other half looks and feels like a church, a hardware store and an arts supply shop all smashed into one.
The tables in the courtyard have wagon-wheel wooden tops decorated with bright colors. There’s a “reflection bench” donated by a member who died last year, a garden is coming next, and every week includes workshops for sewing, art and music.
On one recent afternoon, there was laughter, coffee and a meeting of the health committee, set up for people with chronic illnesses. The following morning, a retiree with her 3-year-old granddaughter gave a big hug to a woman who admitted she’d been feeling low. Then there was cooking class and lunch, followed by singing.
In between, there was self-deprecating humor — “I could talk the bloody legs off a table” — and a young mother received a heater she desperately needed.
“I don’t think anyone can leave here feeling less than when they came in,” said Cynthia Bubner, 66, a close friend of Ms. Wlochowicz’s and the giver of the all-important hug. “Coming to the women’s shed isn’t just about classes or skills; it’s about your whole life experience and being able to do something with it.”
Men’s sheds have been widely studied as models of egalitarian connection and as a cure for the isolation that sometimes leads to mental health disorders and suicide. There are now more than 1,000 men’s sheds across Australia, from the Sydney suburbs to small towns, and there are 1,000 more in other countries, from New Zealand to Ireland.
In Australia, the sheds often receive government grants, and they draw men together for woodworking, metal work and hobbies like model trains. A few of the men confront mortality by building coffins.
Women’s sheds are a newer development, and they often take on a broader mandate, in terms of whom they serve and the skills they aim to develop. Barry Golding, an adult education professor at Federation University Australia in Ballarat who wrote a book about men’s sheds, said women’s sheds were just starting to take off, with around 100 worldwide.
“They are often women who are looking to recreate themselves,” Mr. Golding said.
At a time when protests against sexual harassment are appearing outside Australia’s Parliament, the women’s shed has become another way to channel outrage and energy.
In Davoren Park, some of the women are survivors of domestic violence; others are widows or out of work. They come for protection, progress and fellowship.
Leanne Jenkins, 46, was one of the first members. A mother of two with a tightly pulled ponytail, she said she had been struggling with severe anxiety and depression when her therapist suggested that the shed might be a good place to make friends and develop new skills. At first, showing up brought panic attacks. Now, she’s at the shed almost every day.
“They treat me like family, and if I’m not here or not around for a week, they come get me,” she said. “I feel like I’m relied on. If I don’t make it to the shed, I actually feel guilty.”
Their first project was just getting the shed up to code. The water didn’t work, glass covered the floors, the bathrooms were foul.
They pulled in a small local grant, and the rest came from donations of time or goods. One day, Ms. Wlochowicz received a call from a woman whose sister had died, leaving a garage of arts and crafts supplies. Others offered more clothing and home supplies than they could ever need.
Some of it can now be found in a “room of love.” To get there requires walking down a long school hallway, past a wall of photos with women of all ages smiling and squeezed together. Inside, Ms. Wlochowicz snapped on the light to reveal a classroom made into an ad hoc store, with beauty supplies, dresses, jeans, towels and linens — all of it free for women fleeing domestic violence.
“When they run, they run with nothing,” she said.
It was one of many signs that this particular shed, in a forgotten corner of a wealthy and often sexist country, has never been just about socializing.
On a recent Tuesday, a dozen of the shed’s members, along with a few daughters and granddaughters, sat together in the arts and crafts room to practice for choir with a song they wrote about the shed that plays to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.”
Ms. Wlochowicz watched as their teacher, Katie Pomery, 23, a local singer-songwriter, conducted with her hands and smiled more with every verse.
“It is a place where friendship grows, and you can get free bread,” they sang. “The garden’s full of possums and beasts, the kitchen’s full of food. If you come here with a heavy heart, we’ll lighten up your mood.”