Sure, it doesn’t have “YMCA,” a disco track complete with costumed Village People and sports stadiums full of people making an M with their hands on their heads. But what the YWCA of Greater Charleston does have is 100 years of work to eliminate racism and empower women. This year’s MOJA festival includes a screening of a documentary chronicling the local group’s first 100 years on at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Avery Institute, and a black-tie gala is planned for Oct. 27 at the North Charleston Coliseum to cap off the celebration.
The group was founded as Charleston’s black YWCA in 1907 by three local women who wanted more services for girls and women in their community. For decades it was referred to as a “branch” of the George Street YWCA that was formed for whites four years earlier. The white YWCA disaffiliated in the late ’60s because it opposed the national group’s support of the civil rights movement and integration, considered “militant, political, and controversial issues” by local leaders. With the exit of the George Street Y, the “black” Y became the YWCA of Greater Charleston, stressing its readiness to incorporate all races into services, including programs over the years like Project HAPPY (Help A Potential Problem Youth), The TWIN (Tribute to Women in Industry) Dinner that is still held, the YWCA Fun House for Kids, and a variety of Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.
This year, the group has focused on programs the community has requested through a needs survey, says Amanda Hollinger, the local YWCA’s executive director.
“The two things that came to the surface were helping women become more economically self-sufficient and providing leadership and mentoring opportunities for teen girls,” she says.
There are tons of different things the YWCA tries to do to empower women, but WOW!, or Working Opportunities for Women, collects a host of resources into a four-week, six-hour-a-day course. With aid from a variety of schools, banks, and other support groups, WOW offers lessons in basic math and computer skills, office relations, interview-taking skills, and resume writing.
Cheryl West signed up for WOW after hearing a pitch at a women’s program.
“At first, I said no. I’ve had a lot of that stuff before,” she says. Coming from an office management background, she’d had a wealth of training courses, but the program helped her hone her skills and learn a few new things, including computers and graphics. “I feel like I’ve enhanced skills I already had.”
Each participant has her own goals, says Hollinger.
“For some women it may be wanting to work at a bookstore, and for others it might be trying to get back into the workforce after years of not being employed and building up those skills again,” she says.
WOW! also includes health topics, family issues, and stress relief, including optional meditative dance classes.
“We want the program to be skills based, but also broad and holistic,” Hollinger says. “It’s not like you’re going for a computer class, and then you leave.”
West says she’s continued with the dance program since completing WOW! in May.
“People just don’t take time out for that stuff these days,” she says.
There will be two more programs this year, and the Y hopes to expand the program to Berkeley and Dorchester down the road.
For girls, the Y has developed the Teen Leadership Academy, partnering with Burke High School and South Carolina State University to offer mentors for ninth-grade girls.
“The goal is to work with a group of teens to help them develop leadership skills,” Hollinger says. “To help encourage them to make healthy decisions.”
Students also participate in an essay contest titled, “My Life as a Girl,” that includes scholarship money for the top entries.
“Life as a female is difficult,” noted Ariona Moten, one of last year’s winners in her essay. “But I am a strong young lady (who) understands life and my surroundings. As females, we should be proud of ourselves and of our achievements. I want us to stand tall and say, ‘It’s hard, but we made it!'”
The program will continue this year for Moten and the other girls, now sophomores, as well as a new batch of ninth graders.
In its continuing effort to combat racial injustice, the YWCA is leading The Lowcountry Women’s Coalition, bringing women of different races, occupations, and interest groups together to coordinate on common missions like education and health disparities.
“We wanted to bring together this group of women because we feel like, when issues do arise in our community that we want to advocate on behalf of or speak out on, it’s better to have this coalition of voices that’s acting together instead of acting alone,” Hollinger says.
The “black” Y met at a Coming Street home for decades until the existing building was built behind the home in the ’60s. A local newspaper article at the time noted, “the excellent services performed by the YWCA Branch staff in serving over 900 members is close to unbelievable in view of the limitations.” At the time, the third floor of the home had been condemned from use. In 2005, the “new” building’s power, heat, and air had fallen into disrepair, requiring $100,000 in electrical system repairs. Now the building is back in running order, and the organization is looking for ways to better use the facility. A parking lot where the original home sat provides some extra money. The group is also developing a garden by the center to encourage relationships between seniors and teens and to teach folks about healthy eating and entrepreneurship.
“We want to draw diverse members of the community together to dig in the dirt and create a meaningful public space,” Hollinger says.
While the stories of the past prove the center’s value to Charleston, Hollinger is looking to the stories of the future to prove its permanence.
“People throughout the community have felt really connected to this place. There’s a lot of heart for the YWCA,” says Hollinger. “We’re raising up another generation that will have stories to tell about the YWCA.”
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