When Amanda Veillette was asked to give a keynote speech for International Women’s Day in Houston, she didn’t say no.
But she did wonder, why her?
Last year, she was told, the Women’s Day speaker was a college president.
“Oh well, how am I going to top that?” she said. “I’m not some big academic person.”
But seeing Veillette at work in the manager’s office at Houston’s Castle building supply store, it’s immediately clear why several women asked her to speak.
You hear it Veillette’s voice—friendly and quick, it rings with confidence. She would be a natural for radio, but her voice does a fine job directing things at Castle.
Twice in ten minutes, staff came to her with questions.
First it was someone asking how to price a piece of pre-painted hardware of such-and-such a gauge?
Without missing a beat, Veillette gave the answer—price it like roofing tin—and went back to answering the reporter who dropped in at 10 minutes to close.
But then comes another staff member, this time to tell Veillette she’ s been invited to dinner at Elements Restaurant and has to go.
“I have to look after her,” she explained.
It’s not every twenty-something who can be trusted to run Castle’s busy shop floor and be so admired doing it.
Veillette credits a lot of her success to an upbeat attitude. It was certainly handy last spring, when she oversaw a major renovation at Castle and discovered the whole store off its floor plan by three inches—a big headache when rows of precisely-spaced shelving had to be screwed into the concrete floor.
“It’s done, and I lived to tell the story,” Veillette said, laughing. “I took great pride in burning the blueprints when it was all said and done.”
But Veillette nuts-and-bolts knowledge of Castle is just a part of her story—what really stands out is her knack for building community.
After years as a camper and then a counsellor at Camp Caledonia on Tyhee Lake, Veillette now runs their summer program, where she works with many kids from troubled homes.
She remembers one young boy who, after a few days, felt comfortable enough to tell her that he’d been abused at home—the first step in helping him out.
“To see the difference, in a week, that routine and structure and trust made to a kid with severe issues was amazing,” she said.
Along with Camp Caledonia, Veillette also volunteers on Houston’s Economic Development Committee and at Houston Link to Learning, a local literacy group.
“I do quite a bit, but a lot of that comes from my parents,” Veillette said. “They are awesome examples of what you should be in a community.”
Indeed, it’s especially hard not to see how Veillette follows her father, Jerry Veillette, a director with the Dungate Community Forest and an electrician who organizes Houston’s Christmas light-up.
Veillette says that growing up, her father didn’t treat her or her sister any differently than he would have done if they were boys.
She remembers him saying things like, “‘Amanda, you want to help me change the oil on the truck? Get under here!”
“I didn’t have a choice,” she said, laughing. Whether it was jump-starting a car or changing a tire, Veillette said her dad was determined his daughters would never be helpless women stuck on the side of the road.
And in her life’s biggest challenge, too, Veillette says both her parents were there to help her be strong.
Years ago, Veillette’s boyfriend died suddenly of a cardiac arythmia.
“He had no idea he had it,” said Viellette. Back when they were 17, he had felt poorly on a trip to Irrigation Lake, and in hindsight, that was probably a sign.
But by the time they got to the Smithers hospital, his heartbeat had settled and showed no problems.
High school sweethearts, the two had already been thinking long-term.
“I wanted to be married with kids by the time I was 24,” Veillette said. “But that wasn’t going to happen.”
With emotional and financial support from her parents, Veillette got her life onto a new course. She took a Special Education certificate and helped students at Twain Sullivan elementary. And when the manager’s position at Castle came up, she had already worked up from a cashier to a contract salesperson.
“We all have choices,” she says. “And how you choose to react will determine where you end up.”
With her own life coming together, Veillette is looking to see who will lead Houston through its own ups and downs.
“You have heroes in each generation,” she said. “You have the Arnold Amonsons, who build seniors complexes. You have my dad, who has done light-up for 25 years.”
But where’s my generation of people?” she asked. “I don’t see it. Rather than sit around and complain about it, you’ve got to step up to the plate and try to be that person.”
“It’s the only way it’s going to get done.”