Don’t start humming Village People just yet -- the YWCA isn’t affiliated with that other organization. But there’s still plenty going on to make you break into a happy dance.
The YWCA is approaching its 110th birthday in 2015. The organization has evolved over the years, but what has remained constant is its focus on adult education and job training.
“We made it our bold goal that women and girls of color in high-need communities across the national capital area would have the resources and support necessary to achieve their goals in personal, professional, and academic success,” said Chief Development and Communications Officer Shana Heilbron.
After a summer of strategic restructuring, Shana and other YWCA staff are looking forward to focusing on what they do best: offering adult education, career training and mentoring. YWCA participants take computer literacy classes, attend mock interview training, and study for their GED’s.
The EMPOwERgirlz program, for girls aged 6 to 17, is distinctive for its range of activities and its emphasis on peer-to-peer influence. Charis Goff, manager of volunteer and donor engagement, said girls in the program practice anything from hands-on science experiments to etiquette at a formal, three-course meal. Another critical message is sex trafficking prevention.
“People don’t realize it does happen in the U.S. and really very much in the D.C. area,” Charis said. “We want girls to be aware of predatory behavior.” Once the girls learn how to spot danger signs, instructors urge them to teach their friends outside EMPOwERgirlz.
In 2013, YWCA took part in a campaign against domestic violence.
Shana and Charis both emphasize the role of volunteers. “We really do rely on volunteers for the success of our programs,” said Charis.
Tutors are always in demand to bring extra, individualized attention to the adult training programs. Semester- or year-long mentors for the EMPOwERgirlz program are also welcome.
Professionals in any field may visit a job training day to give mock interview and resume feedback, tips on professional attire, and other insights to help women achieve a career goal.
YWCA staff member believe that, given training and a safe environment to practice their skills, women in disadvantaged areas can achieve professional goals they otherwise might not have pursued.
How I Help
Nina Hudson signed up to volunteer as part of her freshman experience at American University. What started as a day project has turned into an ongoing volunteer internship delving into YWCA history.
“I came with a group of other freshmen to organize books and help with some tutoring, and I started helping with data entry and the development area of YWCA,” she said. “I really liked the organization and what they stood for, and I wanted to be a part of that, so I asked about volunteer opportunities to continue with them.”
Nina helps organize the YWCA’s historical files. She has a stack of snapshots on her desk. One photograph shows a disabled man floating in a swimming pool, supported by two volunteers.
“To look at the photo and see how happy he is and how happy they are is really amazing.”
Another photo Nina likes shows women protesting outside the YWCA in the 1980s.
“It’s kind of a backwards moment,” Nina said. But she’s intrigued that women who used the YWCA would raise their voices if they felt there was a problem. To Nina, moments like this show women empowered.
What have you learned by volunteering here?
“I’ve learned to be stronger. I look and see these strong, independent, amazing women. I feel more in tune with what’s going on around me... I feel like I’m giving back to the community and that it’s helping.
What drew you in specifically about the YWCA?
I’m very much a feminist and I love how the YWCA does a great job of pulling in women who need a strong foundation and base and help them grow... The EMPOwERgirlz program talks about human trafficking awareness and teaches [girls] to tell their friends not to get into those atmospheres. I love that they’re starting from such a young age to empower girls and women. It spoke to me.
YWCA: Learning to Speak Out
Donna L. Smith came to the YWCA after noticing posters for the organization on her way to a shopping outing. Far from the timid woman she claims she once was, Donna doesn’t even need a prompt to begin sharing her story. She immediately pulls out a video of her speech at the Washington Area Women’s Foundation luncheon, gleaming with pride.
Donna Smith, a mother and a student at the YWCA of the National Capital Region, speaks at the 2014 Women's Foundation Leadership Luncheon.
“I started this program last summer, and my goal was to take anything that I have a fear of and try it,” Donna said. “I did more than I thought I would do, twice as much. It took me from being a timid, recovering addict to being an outspoken woman... It’s more than just a GED program. [The YWCA] gave me something to inspire me and something to reach for.”
Donna is quick to credit her YWCA instructor for her speaking confidence.
“If it weren’t for Ms. Gray, I wouldn’t have done it in a million years...She makes us stand up in the middle [in class] and ‘work the room.’”
Taking adult education classes has also offered an unexpected way to bond with her daughters, aged 12 and 16.
“We’re all ready to go to school at the same time, and I love that.”
What achievement are you proudest of?
“I gotta say, to be able to speak around people and speak to a crowd and be confident.”
What else would you like to tell people about the YWCA?
“The classes are small and there’s immediate attention from everybody in here. Even the dumbest question -- they never make you feel that way. Anything you ask is the most important thing you could ask. When you get stuck, you’re not afraid to ask for help. When I first came... I was embarrassed to be here, but not anymore. If I had to recommend it to anyone, I’d say take that first step. They’ll help with the rest.
You have two daughters, ages 12 and 16. How does the YWCA help you pay it forward with them
When I was just a homemaker, I couldn’t understand what they were doing [with the computer]... With the computer classes we took in here, I can do things that they don’t know about, and that’s amazing.
Donna has recently retaken an exam toward earning her GED, and is eagerly awaiting results.
About the Author: Jessica Sillers is a Washington, DC-based writer. She has volunteered as a teacher's assistant in Faridabad, India, and on a farm in Ireland. Contact her at email@example.com