“We’re on a mission to rebuild our programs and physical structure,” said Dr. Shelia J. Webb, president-elect of the Young Women’s Christian Association in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures decimated the YWCA building at 601 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway and forced a 14-year interruption of an agency that had been an integral part of New Orleans for almost a century.
Under the leadership of current President Loyce Pierce Wright and a multi-generational group of volunteers, including judges Terri Love and Bernadette D’Sousa, the YWCA’s Legacy Circle will host a reunion of former Y Role Models on Sunday, Nov. 17, at the Holiday Inn New Orleans–Downtown Superdome, 330 Loyola Ave. Former New Orleans First Lady Sybil Morial and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, both 1989 Role Models, are co-chairing the event, which will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Proceeds will be dedicated to the agency’s rebuilding campaign.
Founded in 1855 in London, the YWCA is a worldwide movement working for the empowerment, leadership and rights of women, young women and girls in more than 120 countries. Its goal also includes creating justice, gender equality, and a world without violence and war.
The New Orleans Y began operating in 1911 at 920 Common St., where “a provision of rooms, food and a gymnasium” were offered for single working women who needed safe, affordable housing. Later educational programs and cultural activities were added.
As more women relocated to New Orleans to enter the workforce, the demand for housing and services grew. According to MyNewOrleans.com, the organization relocated to a larger facility at 1729 Coliseum St. where it could accommodate more than 60 women. In 1918, well-known architects Louis Livaudais and Charles Favrot began designing a structure at 929 Gravier St., which the Y used until 1967 when their relocation to Mid-City was complete.
Beginning in the 1930s the YWCA was the first organization in New Orleans where white women and black women began to find common group together not only on gender issues but on racial issues as well. The New Orleans Y was a trailblazer and paved the way for other white-only membership organizations, including the League of Women Voters, to racially integrate.
Throughout the decades, thousands of New Orleans area disadvantaged and underserved women and children have benefited from the Y’s programming, including the Rape Crisis Center founded by Mary Person Capps and Donna Myrre; the Crisis Care Center, which was the brainchild of Nancy Aronson; the Battered Women’s Program; Youth and Elderly Services including fitness programs led by Trudy Burkhart; Pre-School and After-School Day Care; Summer Day Camps; a Parent-Aide Program; and a Suicide Hotline, all of which were offered free of charge or on a sliding scale basis.
Gail Glapion served as executive director for many years and was preceded by Carmen Donaldson, a planning wizard. Marguerite Redwine was also a major contributor to the agency’s long-term success.
“When I started as director of the Crisis Care Center, I didn’t know much about child abuse and neglect. But I quickly learned that every family situation was different,” said Aronson. “I learned about the extremely difficult situation that these parents faced with substantial financial, health and mental health, housing, and educational challenges. The YWCA played an important role in avoiding longer term foster care placement and giving parents options for having their children returned.” Many of the Y’s programs, like the Crisis Care Center, were groundbreaking at the time of their inception.
The levee failures in Katrina swamped the Y’s South Jeff Davis campus with more than 5 feet of water. A fence currently surrounds the property, which is just across from Comiskey Park. Architects Peter Trapolin and Paula Peer designed a state-of-the-art two story building that will offer child care, domestic violence counseling, services for the elderly and after-school and summer programs for girls.
The YWCA did not have flood insurance. Although FEMA agreed to pay for a new building, the Y was penalized more than $500,000, which hampered the ability to start demolish the existing site and construction. It was finally demolished in 2010.
During the 14 years since Katrina, costs have continued to escalate. Through lengthy negotiations with FEMA, a grant from the state of Louisiana and other fundraising efforts, the Y has secured $4.4 million toward a $5.6 million construction budget.
“In the spirit of our legacy and our future, supporters and friends of the YWCA are mounting this great effort with a goal of moving women, children and families forward,” said Webb. “We are inviting others to join us.” Tickets ($50) are available at the door or through Eventbrite.
Danae Columbus has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, including stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.