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1909-2009: YWCA Celebrates 100 Years in El Paso
Article first published in Vol. 27, 2009.
Based on the Museum of History YWCA Exhibit script by Susan Novick
Scores of El Pasoans celebrated the opening of the YWCA Centennial Exhibit the evening of April 23, 2009, at the Museum of History downtown. The exhibit, which runs through September, traces the beginnings and development of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region to the present, complete with photographs and artifacts which have been preserved over the years. The El Paso association is the largest YWCA in the country.
Image caption: El Paso YWCA Presidents: Mrs. Robert Bruce Smith, 1909-1910 and Sandra Almazan, 2009-2010
Begun in England in 1855 to assist women who were working outside of their own homes as well as women moving to larger cities from the provinces, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) quickly found interest in the United States, with the first group organizing in 1858 in New York City. Two years later, this group opened the first boarding house for female teachers, factory workers and students. Known as the Ladies’ Christian Association of New York, it had as its objective “to labor for the temporal, moral and religious welfare of young women who are dependent on their own exertions for support.” In 1907, the YWCA of the USA was incorporated in New York City.
Similar groups spread to the East Coast and Midwest with programs including prayer meetings and Bible classes, employment bureaus and restaurants, as well as boarding homes. Just as today’s Ys always offer fitness and exercise programs, many of the early groups provided programs in calisthenics and physical exercise to help women to withstand the effects of long and hard work in factory and office.
1909-1918 The Beginning
In 1909, a group from the Women’s Missionary Union representing the Protestant churches of El Paso met to organize a YWCA to take over its work. Mabel Stafford, a national YWCA secretary, came to town to help organize the association, and the women had their first meeting on April 8, 1909, at the First Christian Church, where all of the Union’s property was given to the new group, including two lots on Missouri Street, furnishings, cash and mining stock. Carrie Smith, the first president of the YWCA, accepted the gift. One month later, the association set up offices on the second floor of the Herald Building. The women first established a lunch room and then provided a residence for the many women who had come to El Paso seeking a healthier climate and employment in the city whose population surged from 15,906 in 1900 to 77,560 in 1920.
Image caption: Built in 1917, the YWCA building at 315 E. Frankin St. included an indoor swimming pool, the first in El Paso. (Photo courtesy of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region)
By February 1910, the YWCA had raised more than $10,000 of the $20,000 needed to build the boarding house on 541 West Missouri Street. Realizing that the group needed outside financing, Mabel Stafford explained the group’s predicament in a letter delivered to Mrs. Russell Sage, a wealthy New Yorker with friends in the New York YWCA, who came through El Paso by train on her way to California. Mrs. Sage sent the El Paso women $10,000 for the residence, and on March 13, the women held a groundbreaking ceremony. The boarding house opened in October 1910 and served the needs of young women who came through or stayed here until May of 1941, when the building was sold and became the Harvey Hotel. Also in 1910, the YWCA opened a gymnasium in rented space to meet the need for physical exercise.
In 1916, business and professional women organized a club at the YWCA, sponsoring a loan fund for girls and women who needed financial assistance by raising money through concerts and vaudeville entertainment. When the United States entered World War I in 1918, the club organized a Red Cross Circle to make bandages and knit garments for soldiers and sailors. They made 15,000 bandages and knitted 300 mufflers, sweaters, helmets, wristlets and socks.
Although the YWCA had built a boarding house, its offices had always been rented, and between 1909 and 1916, the group moved four times. In one of their most successful fund-raising drives, YWCA workers raised $70,000 in a seven-day period from January 25 to February 1, 1917, to construct a permanent office building. Several out-of-town donors gave $30,000, and some 2,287 subscribers raised another $123,252.
This fundraising campaign was the first of its kind in El Paso. Adolph Schwartz, owner of the Popular Dry Goods Co., said of his support, “I regard this subscription as an investment which will yield returns through the girls employed in my store who are members or may become members of the YWCA.” The new building at 315 East Franklin Street was dedicated on February 3, 1918, and served the association until 1969.
While serving working women, the YWCA turned to consider the needs of adolescent girls, and the Girl Reserves were born in 1918. A Girl Reserve was “a girl who is constantly storing up, putting in reserve, more of those qualities which will help her to take her place as a Christian citizen in her home, her school, her church and her community.” The Girl Reserves organized into clubs, many associated with schools, and each club had an adult advisor who worked with the girls on programs based on their particular needs and desires.
The clubs included special songs, rituals, conferences, training programs and uniforms. The national organization provided materials outlining programs for grade school, high school and employed girls under age 18. Prominent businessman Horace B. Stevens donated three lots in Cloudcroft in 1913 on which to build a summer cottage named “Rest-A-While” that was used for summer camps for Girl Reserves and Y-Teens through 1961 when it was sold.
Image captions: Girl Reserves and Y-Teens enjoyed the cool mountain air while at summer camp at Rest-A-While cottage and Rest-A-While cottage in Cloudcroft, N.M., was built on land donated by Horace B. Stevens. (Photos courtesy of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region)
1919-1948 Meeting Needs in an Uncertain World
Throughout this period, El Paso’s population continued to grow, and in 1920 women won the right to vote. In 1919, the National Board of the YWCA established the Hospitality House at the international bridge to aid Mexican immigrants. The local War Work Council of the YWCA began the International Institute for Spanish-speaking women at 122½ South Mesa Street, where instructors taught cooking, sewing and English classes.
In 1922, the YWCA organized a World Fellowship Committee to promote better understanding among girls of all races and creeds. This committee organized lectures and activities that helped members learn about and appreciate other cultures, foreshadowing the YWCA’s current imperative to eliminate racism.
Locally, an African-American woman was added to the Girl Reserves Committee in 1930 to represent African-American girls’ clubs. Former YWCA Board Member Frances Hills said, “The fact that they invited us (African-American girls) to come and participate in their general meeting of the Girls Reserves was really a step in the right direction of eliminating racism.”
As the country entered World War II, the YWCA adapted its regular program to reinforce the contribution of women and meet the tremendous pressures created by the war. Programs included leadership development, health and recreation, and current trends in world, national, and local affairs.
1949-1968 Planning for the Future
The Girl Reserves became the Y-Teens in 1946, and clubs at Jefferson High School and El Paso Technical Institute joined clubs at Douglass School and El Paso, Austin and Bowie High Schools. Hired to lead the Teen Department, Patty Hudgens lived as a resident in the Franklin Street building beginning in 1945, and she recruited leaders for the clubs and attended Inter-Club Council meetings. “Inter-Club was always fun, because this gave the girls a chance to know each other from the various schools, including the Douglass girls. … The Douglass girls had more participation from their mothers than the others, and we always had delightful meals and entertainment when they were the hostesses. The other girls did well, but Douglass outshone them in the food and entertainment,” reported Hudgens.
Image caption: Myrna Deckert became program director for the Y-Teens in 1963. (Photo courtesy of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region)
In 1951, Drusilla Nixon became the first African-American woman to serve on the El Paso YWCA Board of Directors. She was married to Lawrence A. Nixon, respected physician and political activist who challenged the Texas voting rights laws in the 1920s and 1930s until African Americans were able to vote in primary elections. Mrs. Nixon began her participation in the YWCA in 1937 by serving on the Girl Reserves Committee.
In 1956 the women began planning a new central building and by 1959 focused on developing decentralized programs in the city’s neighborhoods. That year Kay McIntyre became Executive Director as part of the movement toward adding experienced professional staff. Myrna Deckert, a woman who would become a powerhouse for the YWCA, became Teen Program Director in 1963.
The group began planning its first capital campaign since 1917, hoping to build on property it had purchased on Montana Avenue. By June 1966, only half of the $1.25 million in pledges had been raised, and the YWCA scaled back its building plans and revised its goal to $850,000. When cheaper land and more acreage became available at Brown and Cliff Streets, the association bought the property in 1967 and later sold the Montana and Franklin Street properties.
The new Central YWCA building was opened in 1969. “Oh my, we were so excited when we moved from Franklin to the Brown Street Building. … Everybody was excited about it, and I think it’s kind of from that point that we sort of really took off,” said Joyce Whitfield Jaynes, El Paso YWCA and YWCA World Service Council Board Member and namesake of this branch.
Image caption: The Central YWCA building at 1600 Brown St. was later named the Joyce Whitfield Janes Branch. (Photo courtesy of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region)
1969-1988 Branching Out to Meet the Needs of Girls and Women
By 1970, El Paso’s population was 322,261, with one of the lowest median incomes of any city in this country. Its population was young, 20.8 years, and its major industry was clothing manufacturing, employing more than 10,000 women, many with young children. The YWCA began working with other agencies to administer programs funded by federal, state and private grants. Kay McIntyre retired in 1969, and taking her place was Myrna Deckert, who would hold the position of Executive Director of El Paso’s YWCA until 2002.
Deckert began to work on diversifying the membership of the board of directors and staff, and among the first Hispanic women on the board were Rosa Guerrero, Leticia Paez and Rosa Gonzalez. Susan Melendez, former board member and current YWCA El Paso Foundation trustee reflected, “We needed more Hispanics and more members from the East side and the Northeast side … We brought in some young dynamic women. The Y Board is so strong, and they have incredibly passionate women on that board. … I attribute a lot of that to Myrna and her vision."
In 1970, a delegation of African-American women at the national convention in Houston proposed a resolution that the elimination of racism be the singular emphasis of the YWCA. Following heated discussion, the delegates adopted this imperative and it remains so today. Leticia Paez, former Y-Teen member and YWCA board president, attended the 1970 convention and remembers what the One Imperative discussion meant for her: “I think at that point it really shifted the YWCA’s mission. … The One Imperative really made the YWCA at the national level an agent for social change, instead of a social service organization.”
The El Paso YWCA has always been a leader in the nation, and in 1970, this association developed a Residential Intervention Center (RIC), providing private group homes for troubled teen girls, one of the first in the country. Parade Magazine published an article on the program in 1972, promoting it as a model for similar programs in other cities.
The YWCA provided child care for its participants when the Central Building opened in 1970, but it was soon evident that child care was a need throughout the city. In 1972, the YWCA contracted with the El Paso Housing Authority to administer bilingual and bicultural community services and child care in nine housing complexes. The YWCA also began to administer the Community Coordinated Child Care program, a child care resource, referral and advocacy program. The Y’s staff grew from 27 to 300, and the day care program expanded in 1975 to 13 centers that offered after-school programs.
As more and more women entered the work force and higher education institutions, the YWCA developed more support services for them. In 1978, the Women’s Resource Center opened at the Central Branch to help women with counseling, parental seminars and life management services. Another very popular program created that year was the Consumer Credit Counseling Service to assist people in financial difficulty.
Since 1979, the YWCA has sponsored the REcognized ACHievement Awards (REACH) Luncheon, which publicly recognizes women and girls who make significant contributions to business, organizations and community in El Paso. In 2003, the REACH program expanded to Las Cruces. Today, REACH also presents the Myrna Deckert Lifetime Achievement Award.
The 1980s brought two very important programs for girls. In 1985 Project Redirection brought services to pregnant and/or parenting teens in El Paso County. The program’s goals were to help teens stay in school, access health care and postpone a subsequent pregnancy. Blanca Orona, former YWCA board member and first Hispanic president of the YWCA Board said of the program: “To this day we still provide that service. … The program not only works with the mothers, but also with the fathers that want to be involved, encouraging them in taking responsibility for their actions and also helping them stay in school so they can help economically.”
The Mother-Daughter Program in partnership with UTEP and the Ysleta ISD was established in 1986 to help sixth-grade girls make the decision to stay in school and pursue a college education. Mothers and daughters partake in a year’s series of monthly activities focusing on careers, academic success, community resources, goal setting and personal growth. UTEP president Diana Natalicio said this program “is a good example of the ways in which our organizations are complementary and the ways in which we could work together.”
The 1980s saw a major building program of branches throughout El Paso. The Shirley Leavell Branch opened in 1981 on the East side, while a small facility in the Northeast was expanded and named the Myrna Deckert Branch in 1983. The Lower Valley Branch was dedicated in 1987, and the Katharine White Harvey Branch on the Westside opened in 1988 on land donated by the Paul and Katherine Harvey Trust in 1985. Capital campaigns in 1979 and 1986 financed these branches which were coordinated by Myrna Deckert and a building committee. In 1988, the YWCA moved its administrative offices to 1918 Texas Avenue and dedicated it to Sarah D. Lea to honor a former YWCA president.
1989 to the present – Empowering Women and Eliminating Racism
As El Paso went from being a manufacturing center to a service-oriented economy, the YWCA continued to focus and programs for children and families. It purchased the Boy Scout Camp in the Upper Valley in 1991, renovating it as Camp YW and naming it in 1997 for Mary Ann Dodson. Partnerships with Insights Museum and the Ysleta ISD made it possible to offer science camps for children.
In 1994, the YWCA initiated Children Cope with Divorce, a court-mandated four-hour educational program designed to help divorcing parents focus on the needs of their children during this potentially traumatic period. The program partners with Rollercoasters, sponsored by the El Paso Child Guidance Center, which is designed to help children between the ages of 6-15 who are experiencing changes in family relationships or family conflicts and stress.
The Y’s leadership in child care continued as it successfully bid on the Workforce Development Board’s Child Care Management Service contract in 1990, serving as a referral and placement service covering all licensed day care facilities in El Paso. In 1999, the YWCA opened the Judy and Kirk Robison Mi Casa Child Development Center for homeless children in cooperation with the Homeless Coalition. Today the YWCA provides child care in 14 pre-school child development centers and 51 after-school programs throughout El Paso. Five of the child development centers were among the first to receive Texas School Ready™ certifications, and the Texas Early Education Model (TEEM) selected the YWCA in 2009 to pilot a new academic curriculum for toddlers. In 2008, the Y began negotiations with the U. S. Army to implement after-school, youth and child care programs to serve soldiers relocating to Fort Bliss through the BRAC process.
In 2008, the association piloted YW Zones, a youth fitness initiative featuring GEO Fit Curriculum, Wii Fit gaming systems and fitness lessons through interactive dance instruction. A grant has made it possible to expand the YW Zones to all five branches and incorporate fitness activities into after-school programs.
Homeless women and children, often fleeing violent domestic situations, are being helped by the Sara McKnight Transitional Living Center (TLC), opened in 1993. They may stay for up to 24 months while they participate in activities to help them transition to permanent housing. A 20-family expansion of the TLC opened in 2005 on Altura Avenue. A former resident commented, “The TLC fostered healthy thinking in my mind, which is what turned me around. They could have given me a place to stay for a moment, and that would have been fine. But because that extra piece was there to help change my thinking, it completely changed my life.”
With the Junior League of El Paso, the YWCA constructed Independence House, offering housing, case management and mentorship to survivors of domestic abuse. The YWCA is the largest provider of transitional housing for El Paso families and in 2007-2008, 82 percent of the families in such programs moved to permanent housing.
In 2007, the local YWCA’s separate Community Development Corporation completed 12 apartments adjacent to the Lower Valley Branch, offering housing for older adults who choose to live independently and remain active in their community as yet another example of concern for community housing.
Several local YWCA leaders have served on Board of Directors of the YWCA of the USA and on the World Service Council. In 1999 the El Paso YWCA served as fiscal agent for the Change Initiative, a massive reorganization plan approved by the membership at a special convention in Dallas in 2000. Former El Paso YWCA board president Leticia Paez served as the first president of the newly created YWCA National Coordinating Board.
El Paso’s YWCA created its Racial Justice Committee in 1997 to foster awareness on racism and discrimination to staff, participants and the El Paso community. The association collaborates with the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center on the Racial Justice Institute which offers a curriculum of 150+ modules available for training seminars for businesses and community groups. The Racial Justice “We…the People” Initiative fosters justice, appreciation for diversity and the elimination of racism through core values of Respect, Understanding, Acceptance and Appreciation through education, collaboration, dialogue and advocacy.
Most El Pasoans think of recreation and child care when the YWCA is mentioned, and indeed, it provides vast opportunities and services in both these areas, but it is so much more, as a compilation of its history shows. In 1994, some 800 people attended the first Women’s Benefit Luncheon, the YWCA’s major fundraising event, raising $100,000. On April 16, 2009, Lisa Ling spoke to a gathering of about 1,650 women and men at the YWCA’s annual event, raising $423,653. The YWCA is a careful steward in its financial resources, stretching its dollars to serve more than 100,000 people per year. Just as important are its 2,000 trained volunteers throughout the community who help implement their programs.
On May 3, 2009, the national YWCA General Assembly voted by 91 percent to revise its mission statement to the following: YWCA is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. Ever mindful of changing roles of women, the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region continues to grow in its focus and physical locations, trying to reflect the needs of its community and to fulfill this mission. Reflecting on the history of the local YWCA, Sandra Braham, Chief Executive Officer, said, “The beautiful part of the Centennial is it gives you the opportunity to pull together the community, to remember what a difference this organization has made.”