100 Years of Empowerment

Mary Lee Kiernan was worried. In early February, the president and CEO of the YWCA Greenwich had just received news of a suspected homicide in the community. A woman’s body had been discovered in a suitcase. “We know that intimate partner violence is responsible for more than half the homicides in this country,” Mary Lee said. “And human trafficking may have been involved.”

She was right to worry. A young woman from New Rochelle was allegedly killed by a former boyfriend. When the press started referring to the case as the “suitcase murder,” Mary Lee wrote a letter to the Greenwich Time, reminding the community that the victim was a person, not an object, and she deserved the dignity of being called by name. “Objectifying her minimized the violence that has taken place,” she wrote. “Let’s not desensitize our community and our children from the awfulness of this event. Let’s push against normalizing violence, particularly violence against women.”

Later, Mary Lee explains why she felt it was so important to speak out on behalf of the unnamed victim: “The phrase ‘suitcase murder’ was upsetting to me and many others who contacted me,” she said. “The phrase degraded this victim further and minimized the horrific nature of the violence.”

Since taking over the helm of the YWCA Greenwich three years ago, Mary Lee has been an outspoken champion for women’s rights, women’s empowerment and racial justice. Under her watch, the organization’s focus has been on “developing a strong core, raising the profile and expanding the impact of the mission,” she says. It has done this in a variety of ways. Last year, for instance, the YWCA established a free civil legal clinic as part of its domestic abuse services. It held its first panel discussion on human trafficking, which attracted a standing room only crowd. It has been a fierce legislative advocate on a range of topics from domestic abuse to pay equity and sexual harassment. As part of its outreach to the LGBTQ community, the YWCA initiated a referral partnership with Anchor Health Initiative. And plans are in the works to launch the town’s first dedicated sexual assault services. “It’s all part of our mission to support the community in any way we can,” she says.

That mission is the desire to empower women and girls and promote inclusion and dignity for all. “Through leadership, innovative programs, services and educational opportunities, we are a driving force for a healthier, safer and more equitable community,” Mary Lee adds.

As the organization’s president, she is one in a long line of forward-thinking women who have guided the YWCA since its founding 100 years ago. That was in 1919, at the height of the women’s suffrage movement, and a year before females won the right to vote. Against all odds, a group of Greenwich women forged an ambitious plan: To create a local branch of the YWCA, which would provide safe, affordable housing for young single women and serve as a club where women could learn new skills and build camaraderie. In just six weeks, seven women raised $50,000, which was enough to buy the old hospital building on Milbank Avenue and bring their dream to life. “It was an extraordinary undertaking,” says Mary Lee. “Those women were going into uncharted territory. They had a vision and they were tenacious and resilient enough to carry it through.”

From the time it opened its doors to today, YWCA Greenwich has been on the leading edge of every important social and cultural movement in the U.S.—from civil rights to gender equality. In the early years, it provided courses for women in auto mechanics and electrical repair. In the 1930s, it created committees to address health, education, business and industry and public affairs. In 1949, it joined forces with YWCA USA to advocate to eliminate segregation and discrimination. And in the 1960s, it became clear that to fulfill its mission and accommodate its growing roster of programs, it would need a bigger, more efficient building. A capital campaign was launched; eighteen families raised enough money to buy a 6.5-acre parcel of land across from Christ Church. The YWCA Greenwich moved into its new home in 1970, the year that saw the creation of the Dolphins swim team and the Young Black Business Professional and Homemakers Club. One of the most far reaching additions was the creation of the Domestic Abuse Services Advisory Council in 1981, followed in short order by a teenage pregnancy prevention program and the racial justice committee. And that was all before the turn of the twenty-first century.

Since then the number of groundbreaking initiatives and programs has continued apace. Former board member and chair from 1997 to 1998, Marianne Ho Barnum is the first Chinese-American to hold the position. She has been involved with the YWCA since she started playing tennis there as a teenager growing up in Cos Cob; to this day Marianne can be found in the pool three times a week. During her board tenure, she got interested in racial justice. She shined a spotlight on the initiative by bringing workshops and training programs to the board, which led to her sixteen-year career at Brunswick, first as director of multiculturalism and inclusion and now as executive director of Horizons at Brunswick.

“The YWCA has been extremely influential in my life,” she says. “Besides the fitness side of things, it helped me discover a passion that I was able to take into my professional life.”

In 2008, the YWCA invited her back to lead a workshop on racial injustice. “That to me was like coming home in a lot of ways,” she says. “Doing something I loved that I could share with the current board and help them with their mission and their journey of discovery.”

In celebration of its centennial, and with an eye toward the future, the YWCA continues to evolve its role in the community. “Last year we launched a new strategic plan that will take us into the next century,” says Mary Lee. Helping to move that plan into action is the YWCA’s all-female board, which is comprised of twenty-eight visionary women in their own right. One such woman is Anne Juge, who takes over as incoming chair in July. Having grown up in Greenwich, Anne’s ties to the YW go way back. While still living and working in New York City, she started swimming there on Saturdays as part of her passion for endurance sports. Anne and her family eventually moved to Greenwich, where she jumped into volunteerism, joining several boards. In 2013 she received the YWCA’s Spirit of Greenwich Award and joined the YW board a year later.

“Our role is to carry on the work of our predecessors and to hold ourselves accountable to the strategic plan,” she says. “At the same time, we want to focus on programs. It’s so endearing to see children from preschool in the playground and then come inside to see older adults together playing bridge or talking. The organization serves Greenwich residents of all ages. You’re in a welcoming and safe environment, and that’s a great feeling.”

The YWCA Greenwich has enriched the lives of the community in countless ways. Meet some of the players, past and present, who have made a difference.

Advocate for Change

By the 1960s, the YWCA had outgrown its original building on Milbank Avenue. Recognizing the need for a new building, board chair and longtime Greenwich resident Toni Wyman led the charge. “She was very good at seeing a need and then saying, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ She didn’t let things stand in her way of getting things done,” says her daughter, Leslie Cooper. “She was a professional volunteer, as so many effective people were during a time when many women didn’t have careers outside the house.”

Under the tutelage of her mentor, another former YWCA board chair, Gertrude White, Toni took volunteerism to a new level. She cofounded the Greenwich Arts Council, served on the boards of the Bruce Museum, Greenwich Parks and Recreation and Parsonage Cottage, among others, and was involved with the Sunny Hill Children’s Center for autistic and special needs children. “That was at a time when there was nothing like it in town,” says Leslie. But perhaps Toni’s most enduring legacy is the YWCA’s current home, which opened in 1970 and whose modernist architecture was viewed with suspicion by many townspeople. “For my mother and the women of the YW, the building symbolized something modern and new and forward-thinking, putting women’s interests and needs at the forefront,” says Leslie. “She felt the drive to make a difference. More than 350 people came to her memorial service when she died four years ago at the age of eighty-nine. It was wonderful to see all the people she had touched.”

Best Face Forward

Gail Mills first came to the YWCA in 1950 as a camper at Greenwich Girl’s Day Camp. She still remembers riding the bus from Pemberwick to Tod’s Point, doing a hula dance in the talent show and counselors whose nicknames were Flopsy and Mopsy and Abner and Daisy Mae. “It was only one summer,” Gail recalls, “But I made very good friends there that I had all the way through high school.” She was just eighteen when she rented a room in the building on Milbank, where she lived for a year. The rent was $12 a week. “I never went to college, so that was my experience of dorm life.” In 1990, when she was working full-time for the town of Greenwich, Gail enrolled her young son in the YWCA’s after-school program. “I did a tour and it was hands-down the best program,” she says.

A few years later when she needed to find a second job, she turned to the YWCA once more. “They were looking for someone at night, and I was hired on the spot.” Today she is a valued member of the organization’s Member Services Team—the men and women who are the first point of contact for everyone who walks in the door. “I love the little children,” she says. “They are so precious. They call me Miss Gail.” Now in her seventies and a grandmother of three, Gail works part-time four days a week. “I enjoy the contact with the public,” she says. “I enjoy trying to help people. The YW has always been a part of my life. It wasn’t planned that way. It just fell into place.”

Gymnastics Guru

For the past thirty years, YWCA Greenwich gymnastics coach Sue Knight has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of youngsters discover the joys of tumbling, balancing, vaulting and swinging on bars. “It’s really fun,” she says. “I just love the sport.” Sue, who also coaches the gymnastics team at Greenwich High School, came to the YWCA in the spring of 1989 on a whim. “I needed a job,” she recalls. “I had a friend who was pregnant, and I filled in for her. I’ve been there ever since.” At the time, Sue started working with all age groups, from eighteen months to teens, and she never looked back. Today, she coaches three-year-olds and up.

For Sue, in many ways the program exemplifies the YWCA’s mission, which serves to help women and girls find their voice and gain self-confidence and self-esteem. She describes the courage it takes to successfully walk across a balance beam for the first time or swing around on uneven bars. “That determination, confidence and strength you need in gymnastics helps in any sport that you might go on to,” she says.

While she has achieved great success as the coach of the high school team, winning many state and regional titles, including the F.C.I.A.C. championships 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, at the YWCA, she measures success in other ways. “Someone will come into class, shy and afraid to do a skill. And a few weeks later she is walking across the beam with confidence.

To you or to me it may seem like no big deal. But to them it’s a big thing. I love it.”

Child’s Play

Thirty-one years ago, Vicky Ditri was a single mom when she came to the YWCA looking for day care for her two young children. She needed a job, too, and the next thing she knew she was working as a teacher in the YW’s fledgling pre-school program. Back then it was designed to help out moms who wanted time to exercise. As demand grew, so did the program; it now accommodates kids from fifteen months to five years.

Today, Vicky is one of two teachers who oversees eight youngsters in the twos’ section, who attend half-day classes five days a week. They follow a standardized curriculum established by the state. “It’s very play friendly,” says Vicky. “There’s a lot of talking and socialization at this age.” In addition to word games and STEAM-focused exercises, the kids are taught self-help skills, etiquette and manners. “They do snack, get their napkins and clean up,” says Vicky. “They learn to take their socks and shoes off for gymnastics. Do you know how hard it is for two-year-olds to take their socks off?” For Vicky, the most gratifying part of her job is watching the kids grow from toddlers into self-possessed, kind and compassionate high-schoolers. “Sometimes they come back to visit, or I hear about them from another teacher,” she says. “I get goosebumps. I think, I had that child when she was two and look at her now.”

Swim for Life

When former board member Sareeta Bjerke’s girls were little, she enrolled them in the YWCA’s Dolphins swim program, under the leadership of Nick Cavataro. That was fifteen-plus years ago, but she still remembers them pounding the side of the pool with their fists, saying they didn’t want to stay. “Nick came up to me and told me it was time to go,” she recalls. “He said, ‘We got this.’” Sure enough those little girls took to the program like, well, fish to water, going on to swim competitively in high school. Like so many Dolphin moms and dads, Sareeta credits coach Nick with her daughters’ transformation. “I remember him saying, ‘We’re not about making Olympic swimmers, though that would be nice, and there have been a few, but to make swimming part of their lives.’”

The head coach since 1977, Nick believes anyone can learn to swim. “It’s a very quantitative sport,” Nick says. “If you’re working on skills in all four strokes with a blend of endurance-based training, you will develop.” He preaches discipline, practice and teamwork. It’s a philosophy that has paid off in spades. The Dolphins are routinely winners at state and national meets. Many go on to swim in college and eight have made it as far as the Olympic time trial qualifiers, with three in 2016. “Winning is always fun for the kids, the team and the coach, but the journey is just as important,” he says. “As a coach, I get satisfaction from seeing somebody do their best, improve and see the results that come from that hard work. Discipline and desire are critical to success. The fundamental elements that lay the groundwork for being a good swimmer, these are good lessons for life.”

Keeping Women Safe

In 2006, while studying for her master’s degree in social work, Meredith Gold began an internship in the domestic abuse services at the YWCA Greenwich. “It was a real eye-opener for me,” she says. “I had never thought about working in the field of domestic abuse before this opportunity and realized very quickly this was where I wanted to focus my work.” Back then, there were three full-time staff members, two part-time social workers and an intern. Today, as executive director of the YW’s program, Meredith oversees a department that has thirteen employees, seven of whom work full- time. According to the Greenwich Police Department, domestic abuse is the second most reported crime in Greenwich (the first is larceny), and the No. 1 violent crime. Last year, the domestic abuse services hotline fielded more than 3,500 calls, and the department helped 752 victims.

Meredith and her staff work hard to dismantle the myths around domestic violence. Among them: that it is confined to a particular subset. “It does not discriminate,” she says. “Abuse is about control. No matter if someone is in Conyers Farm or Byram, you hear the same stories, and see the same patterns.” As part of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the YWCA program is one of eighteen agencies designated by the state to provide comprehensive services to victims, and to those impacted by domestic violence. It does this in a variety of ways, including direct intervention with access to an emergency shelter in a safe and secure location, criminal court advocacy, a civil legal clinic manned by volunteer attorneys, and financial literacy and empowerment programs, “Being housed in the YW is a huge benefit,” Meredith says. “People feel comfortable coming into the building. They could be coming in for a variety of reasons; it doesn’t ‘out’ them and they feel safe and secure.”

Over the past ten years, the department has increased its awareness initiatives and community outreach. It collaborates with local police, town government, private businesses, community members and the school district; it hosts panels and seminars that are free and open to the public; it offers professional training and brings programs into the public schools. “We have always responded to, and will continue to respond to, people in crisis,” she says. “But the goal of these initiatives is to spark a shift in the culture and in gender norms and to prevent future incidents of abuse by teaching about healthy relationships to young people. Domestic abuse thrives in the silence and the shadows. I always say Greenwich is a safe community, but for many people the most dangerous place is inside their house.”

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