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New Beginnings: YW Calgary set to move into new home in Inglewood

The Calgary Herald with Sue Tomney 03 July 2019

YW Calgary, an organization that’s been helping vulnerable women in Calgary for 112 years, is moving to a new home.

Throughout the summer, the organization will transition from its long-time downtown location to a new building in Inglewood. Doors will officially open to the public in September, after the YW’s office, services and programs — and women and children who live in transitional housing — have settled in.

The new YW Hub is a two-acre site surrounded by homes, parks and small businesses — a far cry from the surroundings of its current building, which opened in 1971 as a YWCA hostel for youth.

“For us, it was really important that the building be in a community,” says Sue Tomney, the YW’s Chief Executive Officer. “And how wonderful is it to be in the historic community of Inglewood? It is so diverse and has been so wonderful to us.”

Completing the YW Hub facility is an exciting step forward for an organization that’s been dedicated to improving the lives of women since its inception.

YWCA Calgary was born one evening in July 1907, when Calgary resident Elizabeth McDougall opened her door to a young woman who had arrived by train and was looking for a place to stay. The girl had been denied many times before landing on McDougall’s doorstep. (At the time, men were considered preferable boarders, according to Creating Cornerstones, a book about the YWCA’s origins.) Soon after taking the woman into her home, McDougall and her friends founded the Young Women’s Christian Association of Calgary.

Their goal — to provide accommodation for young women who were new to the city — may be at the heart of the largest and longest-serving women’s organization in Calgary, but the YW of today looks much different.

Over the years, the organization has evolved to meet the ever-changing needs of women and their families.

“For a city that has so much, we haven’t crossed that line yet where women have an equal voice at the table,” says Tomney. “And, unfortunately, we continue to have one of the highest domestic violence rates in Canada — one of the top three.”

With that in mind, the YW’s mission is for women to thrive in a safe and equitable community. The organization’s programs and services encompass domestic violence and crisis support, English language skills, employment training, counselling, outreach, childcare and more. It also provides various forms of shelter and housing for women and their children, ranging from emergency beds for those in crisis to transitional housing that supports women as they gain the skills and confidence to move out on their own.

Though the YW is focused on women, it is heavily invested in helping men succeed, too. Lana Bentley, director of program operations, says the current facility starts to buzz around 5 p.m., when men stream in for the group counselling sessions dealing with domestic violence, parenting skills and more. She aptly sums up the YW’s broad scope of offerings: “YW Calgary offers people the opportunity to begin again.”

Many are in search of new beginnings. Bentley notes that although complex social issues rarely are caused by just one factor, the city’s recent economic downturn has “raised the temperature” for many families struggling to get by.

Domestic violence, substance misuse and poverty have been prevalent in the city. The city’s economic woes have also made it that much harder for Calgary’s growing immigrant population to find work. In the last year alone, people from 110 countries accessed the YW’s many programs.

“You walk around here and it feels like a mini-United Nations,” says Tomney.

To reflect not only its diverse clientele but also the organization’s growth, the YWCA went through a rebranding in 2016 and officially became the YW.

“We never want to leave (the YWCA name) behind because it’s part of our roots, but it didn’t describe who we are today,” says Tomney. “It’s just a different day.”

The newly constructed YW Hub facility in Inglewood, located at 1715 – 17 Avenue S.E., is evidence of just how different things are from a century or so ago. An all-female architectural team from Kasian Architecture designed the building, which includes supportive and transitional shelter for 100 women; 90 child-care spaces; a wide range of programs and services for the whole family; and a fitness centre, kitchen and multipurpose rooms that will be open to the public.

Tomney says the biggest influence on design was understanding how women recover from trauma. As opposed to the YW’s cement-dominant home in downtown Calgary, the Hub will be filled with natural light, intersections for women and children to interact, and “more dignified” living quarters.

The YW team is also thrilled its clients will be embedded in a community. “People will raise or lower themselves to whatever the standard is,” says Bentley. “And if you create a standard of connection and community and functioning as part of a neighbourhood, that’s where people will rise up to meet you.”

Gian-Carlo Carra, who represents the Inglewood neighbourhood in his duties as councillor for Ward 9, is excited to welcome the organization and its people.

“The YW’s Hub is the wonderful coming-together of one of Calgary’s oldest institutions with its oldest community in an amazing, brand-new facility that will contribute to the ongoing project of inclusive community-building for decades to come,” he said via email.

To ensure the YW is successful in helping women and their families for decades to come, the organization is focused on fundraising the final $6 million of its $60 million target. So far, funds have come from a few places: all three levels of government contributed a combined $20 million; the YW invested $20 million from the sale of its current building; and the Calgary community has donated $14 million to the cause. The funds have been used to build the Hub, while a portion has been set aside to redevelop the YW Sheriff King Home for women fleeing domestic violence.

“The last $6 million is critically important to ensure that we’ll be here for the next 100 years and, as we say, be able to serve women we’re never going to meet,” says Tomney.

When asked about the YW of tomorrow, the team says it is excited to be bold, try new things and adapt to a city that is always changing.

“The YW of the future is going to be an even crisper, more sophisticated version of where we are now, which is leading the way with evidence-based practice, looking at problems differently and moving beyond conventional ways to address them,” says Bentley.

Moving beyond the conventional will mean implementing a “hub and spoke” model, whereby the community can come to the YW Hub for support, but the YW can also go to the communities. The team is eager to implement new programs and ideas that will be tailored to each neighbourhood’s norms — and to remove barriers for the people there to access them.

“This is about showing up when and where people need us the most. I think what’s really cool is the YW of the future is saying, ‘And where is that?’” says Bentley. “You tell us, and we’re going to be there.”