What turns a workshop into a Men’s Shed?

Joining a men’s shed changed Mike Jennings’ life.

The now 78-year-old was first nervous about life after retirement. Working at his Langley business kept him busy. He said he wouldn’t otherwise know how to fill that time. Then he learned about the Men’s Shed Association of BC.

“I can’t convey the magic that exists in men’s sheds,” he said. Jennings is now the association’s president.

Groups across the province are helping men manage their mental health, Jennings recently told former FVC intern Josh Kozelj. (You can find Josh’s story for The Tyee about men’s sheds and mental health here.)

FVC: Maybe you can start by first explaining what a Men’s Shed is? What is the [Men’s Shed] association?

Mike Jennings: Let’s start with what is a Men’s Shed. A Men’s Shed can be any sort of venue. Every shed in BC is different, but often, it winds up being something you’d find in a garden shed; a small workshop. Some are big. We have two very big sheds in British Columbia—one in Vernon and one in Vanderhoof. But most of them are more modest.

In that shed, it’s a welcoming place for all men, low-barrier to access, low-pressure. They’re just a friendly place to come and get together. Depending on the facilities you have various activities. For instance, there’s one in North Vancouver just getting going. Their first activity is to form a quartet. So this is not unusual in men’s sheds to have singing groups and guitar players and things. But most often, it tends to be a woodworking shop of some description.

And in that shop, the first thing that men often do, and the reason men often go there, is to do a project that they’ve always wanted to do. It might be something like building a cuckoo clock or something like that. It’s a project they do for themselves.

The second level is the things that need to happen in the shop. Like you might have to build some benches or do some fundraising to keep the shed alive. So then the members come together to do a project together for the shed.

And then the third level and the most impactful level is that the shed gets known in the community. I’ll give the example of the Port Moody Men’s Shed. The MP came along about six months ago and said, ‘There’s a Ukrainian refugee family moving into a house that needs some repairs? Could you guys look after that?’ And of course, they did. And that’s the sort of thing that happens in all the Men’s Sheds across BC. And to me, that has the biggest impact on the men that participate. And it also is what really turns a workshop into a Men’s Shed.

FVC: You talk a little bit about what takes place there and how it can be of any type of venue. But what is the purpose of the shed? Why is it important to make this space for these men?

Jennings: Men often suffer from isolation and depression and other diseases, illnesses. I’m not sure how to describe it, but mental illness in isolation. So men’s sheds are really all about men’s physical and mental health. Having a place where somebody can go, feel welcomed, is really important.

We don’t offer any therapy in the shed at all. It’s just the camaraderie and working together, talking shoulder to shoulder that brings the men together. And it might happen over coffee and a game of cards or carving. You don’t have to be an expert at anything to come and join in and there’s a job for everybody.

The coffee part is certainly as important as the tools in the shed, just being able to sit down and talk together about anything. Actually, in those conversations, important topics come up. And in my own case, I think Josh mentioned it in The Tyee article: out of the blue, I was diagnosed as needing bypass surgery. And the next time I went to the Men’s Shed, they invited somebody to come and talk about what I might expect when I go into that surgery. He’d been there and shared his experiences and told me basically not to worry about it.

FVC: Is it important that these spaces are exclusively for men?

Jennings: It is. To be a Men’s Shed, it has to be welcoming for all men. And there’s a vulnerable group of men that would not come to the shed if there were women in the shed. But having said that, women always have and still do play an important part in Men’s Sheds.

The first Men’s Shed was started by a woman. And I would say often maybe 25 to 30% of the time, they are still started by women for the benefits of the men. Hopefully, the shed develops and becomes independent and the guys can look after themselves. But there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be women sheds. In some places there are. I don’t believe there’s one in Canada, but I believe there are [women’s sheds] in Australia and the United Kingdom. But it probably wouldn’t be appropriate for men to run women’s sheds.

FVC: You mentioned the sheds help men with mental health concerns or isolation? Does the shed target specific men?

Jennings: No, definitely not. We don’t ask anybody any questions when they come into the shed. If they want to share their background, they’re welcome to. But when somebody walks through the door, we certainly don’t ask them anything about that.

I’m not a therapist, I have no background in this whatsoever. But I wouldn’t want to be part of a group that was exclusively Mike Jennings’s. I think that would be pretty boring. I think Men’s Sheds work because we endeavor to be as diverse to include a cross section of society.

You’ll find men in Men’s Sheds who are exceedingly well-heeled, and others that don’t have two pennies to rub together. But when you go into the shed, you wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other. And the same things apply to our health. Now, somebody wants to share that, that’s fine. And that’s what happens when working shoulder to shoulder, men will talk to one another, and they’ll share their problems where they won’t do it anywhere else.

FVC: How long have you been a part of this group and how has it changed your life?

Jennings: I first heard of Men’s Sheds in the spring of 2015. And I learned of it because I had a small business in Langley, and as it happens, somebody had approached me and said, ‘Mike I’d like to buy your business.’

I immediately wondered what I would do now, because everything I did as a single guy, living in a small apartment, I knew that I would not last long if I didn’t have something meaningful to do. I love to be creative, so I started looking around for some way that I could have a workshop that I could go to. And I love to build small boats, canoes, kayaks, things like that, that’s what I’ve always done, and so I needed something to find some way to fulfill that need.

One of my colleagues gave me a copy of the Vancouver Sun, which was an article about Men’s Sheds. I followed up on that, and I said where’s the Men’s Shed in Coquitlam. And Doug Mackey, the guy that was featured in the article, he’s in Winnipeg, he said, ‘There isn’t one, you better start one.’ And that was the genesis of the Coquitlam Men’s Shed.

So at that point, all I was looking for was a workshop to work in and I thought that would satisfy that itch. But I’ve soon found out that there’s a lot more to men’s sheds than building stuff. And it all has to do with the camaraderie and the friendships you naturally make in the shed, taking responsibility for doing stuff. So now instead of sitting at home, watching TV, etc., now I had an outlet for that, and it’s kept me busy ever since. It brings me great joy.

The same thing happens to almost everybody in the shed. They start taking responsibility for things in the shed that make them feel good, whether it be running the shed, being part of the management of the shed, taking leadership, completing projects, participating in projects. It brings you joy, gives you a great deal of satisfaction, gives meaning to life.

FVC: There’s no fee to join or be a part of this group in any way?

Jennings: It’s a low barrier to entrance. Now every shed is independent, and they would all set their own rules. So, for instance, the sheds that I’m involved with, they all have the same criteria for eligibility for membership. Number one is respect. Number two is annual dues of $20. And we will forgive you the $20 if it causes hardship.

FVC: If people in the Fraser Valley wanted to get involved in Langley or Chilliwack or anywhere else really, how would they go about doing that?

Jennings: If they go to the BC Men’s Shed, bcmensshed.ca and go to the contact information, they can either contact myself at MSABC (Men’s Shed Association of BC), or the Cloverdale shed which is operating the Langley Men’s Shed which is just about to get off the ground, or the Chilliwack Men’s Shed. Also before long there will be a White Rock Men’s Shed.

When I started with BC Men’s Shed, probably about 2017, there were eight sheds. Now there are 25. I fully expect that to double before long.

FVC: Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

Jennings: I can’t convey the magic that exists in men’s sheds. It is really, truly unbelievable. It’s very difficult to believe but men’s sheds, once they get established, they develop an ethos or a culture that is really therapeutic. But we don’t offer any therapy.

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