Innovative Men’s Sheds Concept Gains Foothold in U.S.

“Men’s Sheds,” a movement founded in Australia to promote social interaction and community service among retired men, is coming to the United States.  Eleven Men’s Sheds have been established so far, several others are in the planning stage, and an organization—the US Men’s Sheds Association—has been formed to promote the movement and help new Men’s Sheds get started.

“Shoulder to Shoulder”

Helping a Cub Scout with his Pinewood derby racer

A Men’s Shed is a gathering place for older men typically organized around a theme and a purpose.  A Men’s Shed might feature a woodshop where men work together on community service projects like building handicap-access ramps for people who otherwise couldn’t afford one, or a kitchen where men learn cooking skills and share the food they’ve prepared.  There are nearly 1,000 Men’s Sheds in Australia, several hundred in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and 25 or more in Canada. The motto of the Men’s Shed movement is “Shoulder to Shoulder,” shortened from a longer phrase explaining how men prefer to communicate:  “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder.” Some sheds have opened membership to both men and women and to people of all ages.

Mark Winston, a 60-year-old businessman and a founding board member of the US Men’s Sheds Association, first became aware of the Men’s Shed movement seven years ago, and four years ago helped start Canada’s second Men’s Shed in Vanderhoof, British Columbia.  When he learned that a Men’s Shed had been founded in Hawaii and another in Minnesota, he began networking with the founders of those sheds and with leadership from the International Men’s Sheds Organisation, and founded the US Men’s Sheds Association as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization early in 2017.

Giving Purpose and Combating Depression

Winston has seen firsthand how Men’s Shed participation improves the lives of men in retirement.  “At the Vanderhoof shed we were able to persuade a couple of guys to participate who were so depressed they didn’t want to leave their apartments,” says Winston.  “One day I was at the shed and one of them took me by surprise by walking up and giving me a hug. He told me: ‘Thanks for giving me my life back.’ Now these two guys have keys to the shed and are opening and closing it five days a week.”  Winston says that Glenn Sears, the founder of the first US Men’s Shed in Hawaii, had moved there from Colorado with no friends and now has 50.

Sears and Phil Johnson, the founder of Minnesota’s first Men’s Shed, joined Winston on the association’s board of directors.  Johnson, 68, a retired software engineer who had earlier played a pivotal role in establishing women’s pole vaulting as an NCAA-sanctioned event, saw the Men’s Sheds movement as another opportunity to do “exactly what I like to do”—lead a national movement.  He has also seen how participation has made a difference in his own life. A friend of his, Johnson said, recently told him that he seemed much happier since becoming involved in the movement.

Spreading the Movement With a Top-Down Approach   

By permission Hawaii Men’s Shed Association

In other countries where the movement has taken root, individual Men’s Sheds typically grow when a small group of men in a locality hear about the movement, meet to express mutual interest and willingness to get involved, and only then seek advice on how to proceed from the national association.  In a larger and less homogeneous society like the United States, Winston and Johnson are taking a different approach, proactively reaching out to civic, community, and senior centers to generate interest in starting Men’s Sheds under the wing of existing organizations. Johnson describes this approach as akin to a “franchise” model.  They’re approaching national organizations like the Educational Development Center, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and veterans organizations to build a coalition and spread the word.  The association has also applied for foundation grants to fund growth of the movement.

Winston says complaints about gender bias have been few.  In fact, wives have been supportive because Men’s Sheds “give them a break and their husbands something to do.”  And the movement isn’t entirely man-focused. Internationally, Winston says, one in five Men’s Sheds includes women members and, in the United States, a new Men’s Shed in Florida is forming under the leadership of a female airman who sees the movement as an important resource for veterans who might be facing mental health challenges.

Into the Future

While still in its infancy, the US Men’s Sheds Association is laying a strong foundation for future growth of the movement in the United States.  They’ve drafted statements articulating the organization’s mission, purpose, and values, and have written a 2018 strategic plan detailing annual objectives in areas including marketing and communications, partnerships, funding, and organizational development.  Most importantly, they’ve established growth goals, hoping to expand to 50 sheds by the end of 2018 and to 200 sheds by the end of 2019.

To learn more about Men’s Sheds in the United States, find out if there is a shed near you, or learn how you can get involved in the movement, visit the US Men’s Sheds Association website.