YWCA of Central Alabama helps women facing uncertainty find their footing, purpose
Original post by Phil Pierce on Alabama NewsCenter
Editor’s note: Each Monday, Alabama NewsCenter is highlighting stories from the Alabama Power Foundation‘s annual report. Each story spotlights an organization or initiative the foundation supported in 2019.
At the YWCA of Central Alabama, hugs are the currency of security and happiness, and relieved smiles are the sign of progress. Newfound independence is the key to futures filled with good.
That’s the way it goes, minute to minute, day to day, at this caring place where the mission is evident in a range of services providing shelter and stability from domestic violence, creating encouraging programs, empowering youths and so much more. If there’s an issue that touches women, families, safety, compassion, communication, skill sets, legal issues, social justice or just putting one brave foot in front of the other, the YWCA embraces the need with programs that work.
So many programs, so many people served – in all, some 19,000 a year. Most immediate among them is the YWCA’s domestic violence initiative, said LaRhonda Magras, the new chief executive officer of the program that provides more than 80,000 nights of shelter annually in Birmingham and St. Clair County. “When people come through our doors, we provide the space for them to be safe, heal and plan for their future,” she said. “So that may mean wraparound services like goal setting, financial planning and job searching to help them get on their feet.”
Most times, children come along, frightened and uncertain. But with child development programs such as KIDS (Kids in Distress) Korner and Calico Corner, children find a place that instills confidence, trust and structure, and they are able to learn, grow and break the cycle of poverty.
“We believe there is definitely a link between education and poverty,” Magras said. “From the very young to teens, these are the people who will go on to change the system.” The YWCA’s Child Development Center fills young minds with knowledge and can-do confidence; teachers educate and listen.
Some 42 AmeriCorps program workers provide services as part of the YWCA’s “Building Communities, Bettering Lives.” Energetic and willing, they dive in to gain skills and operate on all levels.
During Kenyata Tate’s two years with the national program – a sort of domestic version of the Peace Corps – none of her colleagues knew that she had once lived in the YWCA’s confidential shelter as a victim of domestic violence. “I didn’t tell anybody, but I remembered it well,” said the mother children aged 3, 2 and 5 months who lost their father. “It had been a toxic relationship, and I used the resources I’d learned at the shelter to start over. I wanted to do things right.”
Single-parenting her family, Tate provided for their needs financially and fulfilled her role with the U.S. Army Reserve. But she felt a lack of purpose. AmeriCorps became the answer and the change.
Tate found her voice and her footing at the YWCA’s Woodlawn Family Resource Center. There she rocketed into action, creating and leading programs that brought the center dance and music lessons, healthy cooking classes, gardening, tutoring, literacy efforts and more for children and families. She planned CREW (Creating Responsible, Educated, Working) for teens, a life-skills and workforce program and often spoke to media for AmeriCorps. For two years running, her peers selected her AmeriCorps Member of the Year.
“The thing I learned was that I want to help people,” Tate said. After completing two years of the AmeriCorps program, she was tapped for the United Way‘s Loaned Executive program, in which she crafted a speech largely drawn from her own experiences at the YWCA and delivered it – with initial trepidation that later turned to boldness – to large corporations, where she raised more than $300,000 for agency causes. For her success, Tate received a Team Choice Award. She returned to the YWCA, this time on the administrative side of the AmeriCorps program.
Over time, the YWCA has provided Tate a safe and nurturing shelter from domestic violence, a place to hone leadership skills and a strong, unwavering family of support. She has also realized her calling. “I’ve been helped and now I want to help, so I’m studying to be a social worker. I’m here to make a difference, and that’s what the Y and AmeriCorps have done for me.”
Other women bring different needs, different stories. A homeless woman described herself as feeling desperate before finding a roof, the right words and the path to a solid life course at the YWCA. Thousands of other desperate women, some on the brink of tragedy, gain encouragement and strength from the 24-hour Crisis Hotline; staff attorneys step in to guide in situations such as divorce or child custody; and a bullied child gains skills to stand strong and flourish.
“An important part of our work is to dismantle systemic racism,” Magras said. “We know some of the families who enter our door have multiple issues, one of the factors often being the color of their skin. Under our social justice umbrella, we work with teenagers, for example, in dealing with discrimination: how to talk about it, how to dialogue with others who are different, how to look at individuals one on one. We also offer them a program to help recognize and escape potentially destructive relationships.”
The YWCA, exploring new programs as needs arise, depends on the annual Purse & Passion luncheon to raise $700,000 to cover a variety of needs. The generosity of community leaders like the Alabama Power Foundation helps keep the missions alive. “Ours is a 30-year relationship with the foundation,” Magras said. “We’re over the moon when someone shares our passion and our vision. The foundation wants to keep our community healthy and has a strong commitment to both funding and volunteerism.
“We get up every day, go out and do our work because that’s what we’re called to do,” Magras said. “We’re only as good as the gifts from partners like the Alabama Power Foundation that give and share. That’s how we achieve our goals.”