From left: Sharon McGinty, Linda Tissiere and Pat Asch Photo by Isaac Harrell
Linda Tissiere, executive director of the Richmond YWCA since July, says she has been preparing a long time for the challenge of leading one of Richmond's most historic organizations.
"I come from a company steeped in history, one that really believes in giving back," she says of her decade directing Luck Stone's philanthropic efforts. "However, I was looking for a more direct way to serve our community. I wanted to work with an organization that focused on women, children and/or education, my three personal passions. The YWCA has been doing that work for such a long time. The folks who are aware of our programs hold us in very high regard; however, outside our client and donor base, very few people know who we are and what we do."
The first YWCA in Richmond, the oldest in the South, evolved from a parlor meeting of eight white women held in 1887. The first building, located on Main Street between Sixth and Seventh streets, provided housing for women coming to the city to find work. By 1913, the central building on 6 N. Fifth St., where Richmond's Y is still located, had been built.
For the past 125 years, the local YWCA has been at the forefront of women's issues. Pat Asch reaped the benefits of the women's movement when she was 50, holding her first full-time job from 1978 to 1988 as executive director. Asch, now 85, spent time recently reminiscing about the organization.
"I was intrigued with the mission of the YWCA," she says. "It was a time when the women's movement was doing a lot of things. It was a challenge."
Over time, the agency's focus expanded to address rape and domestic violence, as well as continuing to find stable housing for women and children.
"People had a different attitude toward that issue then," Asch remembers. "The great big secret came out — that domestic violence was a problem for both men and women. A shelter was established for women and children, and separate services were developed for men. A full-day and after-school child-care programs were developed, and there was a black YWCA then," she adds, referring to one of the country's first black branches, established in 1911.The Phyllis Wheatley Richmond Branch, named after a freed slave who was the first published African-American poet, became an official part of the YWCA of Richmond in 1914.
The Outstanding Women's Awards program was also established during Asch's term. The annual event has recognized more than 300 local women for their contributions and achievements in a variety of areas representing every community sector, ranging from business and education to volunteerism and the arts. (Note: Richmond magazine editor in chief Susan Winiecki and I have both received this honor.)
"The assortment of women is wide, touching the whole community," Asch points out. "The important part is there is a place in Richmond where women have been comfortable over a long period of time. The Y's mission has changed some, but they are still providing for the needs of women. "
Sharon McGinty, recent past president of the board of directors for the local YWCA and a bank executive for Capital One, agrees. The board has updated organizational strategy, rethought how services were provided to the community, and addressed housing, as well as other needs, for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, both adults and children.
"We changed the model from shelter housing to include apartments and relationships with apartment complexes that allowed us to place people in a safe home," McGinty says. Now, a person in need can stay for up to two years in one of four extended-stay apartments. The Richmond YWCA is the primary provider for domestic violence victims in the city and Chesterfield County, and it remains, by far, the largest in Central Virginia.
"Instead of bringing victims to the shelter and housing them until such time as they can live independently, we needed to address things like work situations, where the children would attend school," says Becky Lee, chief program officer at the YWCA. "If you can catch them before they come into the shelter and provide financial assistance to help them until they can get a new start, that's the challenge."
Lee also has been working with the board to implement the latest strategic plan, Regional Hospital Accompaniment Response Team (RHART). Three years ago, RHART was launched as a collaboration of the Y, Henrico's Safe Harbor and Hanover's Safe Place. If a victim of rape or domestic violence needs forensic tests at VCU Medical Center or a Bon Secours facility, a volunteer is sent to the victim's side.
"Forensic nurse examiners gather the information, but forensic exams are very invasive," Lee says. "For someone who has just been traumatized, it's another intrusion. They have to stand naked on a sheet, while another person brushes their body to gather evidence."
Prior to the collaborative effort, the YWCA responded to an average of 65 calls a year, but as of this past May, volunteers had already assisted 353 people this year.
"The YWCA serves as the first point of contact for people needing hope — whether it is a victim of sexual assault needing a supportive advocate in the ER through the RHART program or a child with unstable housing needing a quality preschool education," says Tara Casey, a Y board member since 2008 and director of the Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service at the University of Richmond law school. "For those members of our community, the YWCA represents the gateway to a future of possibilities while also providing the support and resources to heal the past."
In November, a free exhibit celebrating the 125-year history of the YWCA will open at the University of Richmond's downtown campus.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.