After retiring from a full career as a state trooper, you’d think Kay Pomroy would have already given enough of her life to protecting and helping others. I doubt anyone would have looked askance if she then spent her retirement doing things only for herself for a change, but nothing of the sort transpired. Instead, she now finds herself giving both her time and money to help others, this time through woodworking via an effort called “The Reaching Down Project.” For Kay, it is just a continuation of a direction she chose very early on.
“I had always wanted to be a state trooper,” Kay admitted to me. “I even had a hamster named Trooper. By the time I was in second grade, I knew that I wanted to be a state trooper, even though in those days women were not allowed on the force. I wanted to do something that would serve people, and being a trooper not only satisfied that, but seemed to me to afford one great respect as well.
“After graduating from college in 1986 as an English major, I entered the Pennsylvania State Police Academy. The timing was good, since they had only started accepting women in 1972. For the next 20 years, I worked in the police department, retiring in 2006 after doing just about everything there is to do from undercover work to supervising a patrol unit.
“When I first went into the state police, I knew it would be a stressful career, and figured I would need a stress-release hobby. I chose woodworking as my outlet. I had actually started woodworking as a young girl of around seven or eight. My father is a model railroader, and he built himself a train table. I would play with the scraps, hammering and building little things, one of which is a house that is part of his layout. Later, in my teens, I helped him put in a den.
“My first project after entering the force was a shoe caddy. I needed a place to polish my shoes, so I built one. Then I moved on to gift items for friends. I built a rocking horse and toybox for my first nephew, and when people saw those items, I started getting more specific requests. I built an inlaid chess table, a hope chest and a coffee table. As the gifts kept expanding, I realized I was enjoying it. A woodworking friend gave me some tools and an old lathe, and turned me on to turning.
“Playing with the lathe resulted in pens, bowls and other turned objects that convinced me there was a viable opportunity to make extra money with something that I was very much enjoying. The first time I sold items, mostly pens and bowls, was around 1995. At about the same time, I started collecting the tools I would need to eventually turn this into a business, because I knew I was going to retire early. Once I retired, woodworking became my full-time business. My first major order was a solid walnut plank dining table.
“In just one year, the business has blossomed with custom building, repair work and refinishing. I even bought a laser so I could start offering laser engraving services not only to my customers, but to other woodworkers as well. Most customers are word of mouth. There are no stock items. I’ve also recently started offering private lessons in both woodworking and turning. That started because a customer was given an old set of tools and brought them to me to have me show her how to use them. From that, I started teaching both in my shop and at a local woodworking specialty store.”
Even before her woodworking career got into full swing, a chance story was to send her right back into devoting her efforts to helping others. “At my retirement dinner,” Kay recounted, “the principal of an elementary school was relating a story about some home visits she had recently made. There were four elementary students living in horrid conditions and sleeping on the floor. Having been a state trooper for 20 years, I was in the public service habit, and I wanted to continue helping others. Without even thinking I said, ‘Well, we’ll build some beds,’ and we did. Along with a number of volunteers of both genders and all ages, we built four single beds with drawers underneath and a bookcase in the headboard.
“When the four students were told they were getting beds, they got to choose the colors they wanted. The manager of the local Home Depot helped me procure the paint colors I needed, and upon hearing our story, offered to supply all the bedding. A local membership buying club offered the mattresses. We assembled the beds at a Bethlehem church that happens to have a woodshop, and I soon started teaching classes at that shop as well. That effort initiated the Reaching Down Project.
“As an outgrowth of the bed building effort, I submitted a proposal to the vestry of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity to create a ministry called the Reaching Down Project. The idea as I envisioned it is based on the classic ‘teach someone to fish instead of giving them a fish.’ My approach is to provide incentive, education and confidence through woodworking.
“While some people come to the shop to build things to be donated, others come for a new beginning. We seek out people who are in shelters or people who need to start over; in particular, those who need a trade to get back into the community. We help create an opportunity, using woodworking both as a skill and a confidence builder. Hopefully, we’ll be able to expand that with scholarships that can later send people to trade school. I hope to write grants for this and possibly get major support from local cabinetmaking businesses.
“As for myself, I love what I do and am passionate about it. I love all aspects of woodworking; the business side, the creative side, and the Reaching Down side. I think woodworking in particular represents hands-on learning of math and language. It teaches you how to follow directions and offers a way to express yourself. For those reasons, I think it is up to us woodworkers to make sure we keep arts and crafts in our schools so this one does not die.”
For the lucky few who live near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Kay Pomroy offers a chance at a new beginning by picking up at least a tiny bit of the slack created by disappearing woodshop classes. Come to think of it, that seems rather fitting for a town called Bethlehem.