The YWCA of Greater Cleveland Has Been Empowering Women for 150 Years
In November of 1869, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote of a one-year anniversary:
“…the Women’s Christian Association, there has been established in this city, under the auspices of that society, a boarding place or “home” for laboring women.”
On left, a 1869 Cleveland Plain Dealer article describes the one year anniversary of the Women's Christian Association (now called the YWCA). On right, an early WCA location on 16 Walnut Street [The Cleveland Memory Project].
It was then located in a former residence at 16 Walnut Street. That address no longer exists – but the young Women’s Christian Association – or the YWCA Greater Cleveland, as it’s known today – has celebrated many anniversaries since then. This year, it turns 150.
“When the YWCA was founded in 1868, the Civil War had just ended,” said Margaret Mitchell, the President and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland. “And one of the driving factors was the number of unwed mothers in the community, and a need to care for them, support them, encourage them, and, most importantly, to protect them.”
This tradition continues at the YWCA’s current Prospect Avenue location. Through a program called Independence Place, young people, most of whom have aged out of foster care and experienced homelessness, are given a permanent and supportive place to live.
“I didn’t have no where else to go,” said Tierra Gibson, a 22 year-old resident of Independence Place. “I was just basically house hopping, and I wasn’t really doing anything with my life.”
Tierra Gibson does laundry at Independence Place. Residents earn quarters for laundry by going to work and school. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]
“What we really try to be is a soft place to land,” said Synita Brazil, a Life Development Counselor at the YWCA, who works with the residents of Independence Place.
Residents live in small, tidy apartments and have access to a food pantry, laundry room, on-site counselors, and classes and programs designed to help them get on their feet.
“We really empower them, and we want to help them to reach a level of self-sufficiency,” said Mitchell.
“I’m finding myself doing more stuff by myself, versus asking them to help me,” said Gibson, who recently scored a good paying job at Amazon, and plans to move into her own apartment in the coming months.
Being a support system for women and families experiencing homelessness has been the YWCA’s goal from the very beginning – and when Mitchell came on board as President and CEO in 2011, she made it her mission to return to “smaller, but deeper” programs that tackle homelessness. Among her favorites is the Early Learning Center, a pre-school with a focus on serving homeless families.
Margaret Mitchell, President & CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]
“In 2017, 89 percent of our families were homeless at the time they enrolled,” said Mitchell. “And, while we do an amazing job of helping to support children to be ready for kindergarten, we also have very intensive services for our parents.”
“A lot of parents that have come here have been through a lot,” said Valerie Ford, a mother of two children currently enrolled in the Early Learning Center. “And for them to be able to have this support is a big deal.”
For Mitchell, the Early Learning Center is a hopeful place, where the work of the YWCA has a life-changing impact: “Children, even though they’ve experienced significant trauma, as have their parents, there’s just an amazing spirit of resiliency in the pre-school,” said Mitchell.
A pre-school that offers comprehensive care to children, and full support for parents is also a good example of the YWCA model, says Mitchell. “Our services have always been less prescriptive and more about serving the whole woman and the whole family,” she said.
And, according to Mitchell, this model is the YWCA’s legacy.