When Lilly Daly retired in 2021 during the COVID pandemic, she followed a familiar path by seeking out volunteer work to maintain a sense of purpose.
The Cambewarra village resident was in her late 60s so she initially focused on her garden and community work with the Red Cross Society and the Country Women’s Association.
“But there was a missing piece I couldn’t quite put my finger on until a friend suggested I join the Berry Men’s Shed,” says Lilly.
She signed up in September last year and discovered it was a perfect fit.
“I’m a creative person and I loved woodwork at school so a shed which specialises in woodwork and where I can learn new skills was perfect,” she says.
Berry Men’s Shed distinguishes itself by being one of the few sheds on the South Coast that offers blended male/female sessions, although the Men’s Shed movement is starting to consider various models of inclusion in their program.
The sheds officially started in Australia in 1993 to give men, particularly older men, a sense of purpose after retirement, and to address the issue of social isolation which can result in serious consequences like substance abuse and even suicide.
It has evolved into a thriving worldwide concept allowing each shed to become self-sufficient by using shared skills to make, sell and repair items. How they do that is largely up to each shed.
In recent years the question of including women in some capacity has increasingly cropped up and many sheds have rejected it outright, while others have allowed conditional access such as separate days for meetings.
And it is not always the men who object to a blended session – sometimes it is the wives who object, according to one source.
Berry Men’s Shed president Steve Ford, who moved into the area from Sydney four years ago after retirement, says gender has never been an issue in the shed’s 12 years of operation.
“The women are just one of the blokes and everybody is treated with respect,” he says.
“We have about five women, including Lilly, who regularly attend and they’re here for the same reasons as the men – to learn new skills, companionship and fun,” he says.
When asked what women can bring to the table, Lilly says Berry Men’s Shed is open to new ideas and women can bring in a different perspective on creativity when it comes to projects the members can pursue.
Lilly also believes women often enrich rather than detract from the conversation shared over the tea breaks.
“We all join in on the discussion about a range of issues and often have a good laugh at the funny stories relayed during the break,” she says.
Lilly is aware, however, of the wider pushback against the idea of including women, and she understands why.
“It is a Men’s Shed and they were set up for a reason – for men’s mental health – so we need to be mindful of that and to be respectful,” she says.
“Our male members have been very welcoming and I think that has a lot to do with our president, Steve, who treats everybody as equals.”
Lilly believes the concept of mixed sheds is something that could work particularly well in small towns throughout Australia.
“It’s a lovely thing for men and women who might be isolated or just in need of companionship,” she says.