The YWCA strives to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice freedom and dignity for all. Established in 1911, this national organization originally provided housing for women and young girls who were working or attending school, as well as women who worked in defense factories in WWI. This program has evolved immensely over the years as the needs of women have changed, but they have continued their legacy of empowerment through a variety of new programs. They still provide housing and services to young girls and women as needed, but they have also created new housing programs, racial justice and women empowerment groups, youth programming, and so much more. The YWCA is not only a great resource in the Evansville community, but also nationwide, having over 200 locations in the country and servicing around 2 million women, men, girls and their families each year.
The YWCA second floor is a domestic violence shelter and emergency housing. The third floor is the “Yes Program: which is transitional housing for women in recovery from substance abuse. The building is very different from what it was years ago, but is still driven by that same message to empower women.
Youth service director Courtney Edwards has been with the YWCA in Evansville for 28 years now, currently working as the Youth Services Director. She earned her degree in education but was hooked on wanting to work with kids, especially after seeing the work that this program does. “The program had existed based on a different set of skills and values,” said Edwards. “When I stepped into this role, we started with a blank that evolved over the years.”
The YWCA works with several different schools in the surrounding area, elementary level all the way up until senior graduation. Edwards is involved with after school programs where the kids are bussed to the main building for a couple hours after school, as well as summer programs, field trips and mentorship opportunities. The lessons and tools that each grade receives varies of course, but the program strives to see these kids succeed from the time they enter the program, to the time they leave. “In 3rd to 5th grade, we give them those little pieces that come less easily, like self-esteem, respect and anger management, conflict resolving, communication skills, etcetera,” Edwards said. “We try to instill those values early while they are still young, and we can build that respect and mutual trust.”
As they get into the middle school levels, they begin one-on-one mentoring. This part of the program relies heavily on volunteers because the YWCA tries to get each student who wants a mentor paired with one. “We find women in the community we think will be a positive role model and influence in their lives,” said Edwards. Since the one-on-one mentorships often lasts until the students’ senior years, mentors can help a range of different things as they get older and navigate through school. A lot of these kids in the YWCA program are the first in their families to graduate high school or attend college. Mentors can assist students with college applications, FAFSA paperwork and other things that they may not have the resources for at home. The YWCA has scholarship opportunities, not just for college but also trades and other paths that a student might take. “We have had a tattoo artist in the past,” said Edwards. “We just want to motivate them to go through the process and hope that it keeps them connected to us during that transition into early adulthood, so we can help them navigate that.”
Edwards states that the biggest part about this youth program is providing a safe space for the girls and giving them the resources, they need to succeed. “We let them know they can approach us with anything and that they have a safe space here,” said Edwards. “We set big goals for our students and to see them achieve these things and avoid some of those generational setbacks is amazing.”
This program has been so influential over the years, and recently they have even begun to see generational effects on families. “It’s exciting to see them successful, especially the ones who are coming back to become mentors for this program,” said Edwards. “Some of our students are hitting their 30s so they are just starting to see that turnaround over the years and feel stable enough to share their experiences with the program.” She said that past students have started to return to the YWCA and talk with the current students about the opportunities the program gave them that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. To see that kind of reciprocity in an organization is amazing, especially regarding the struggles most students face.
“Everyday is different and totally crazy,” said Edwards. “When you see kids you weren’t sure if they would make it be your ones that graduate from college and make more money than you ever will, those times are excited.” Stories and experiences like these show the impact and passion involved in the YWCA. The Youth Services are only a portion of the work, but you can see the message resonate through each student story.
The YWCA has recently started a youth program for boy as well and are always in need of positive role models and mentors as the program continues to grow. You can visit their website, ywcaevansville.org to learn more about the organization, volunteer to influence young lives or donate. It also has contact info for all departments, links to their social media and more details regarding field trips and other learning opportunities.