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Atrophy to Action at YWCA

Having lost more than half its 700 chapters, and soon the one in Orange, the organization tries to regain relevance and a healthy balance sheet.

November 25, 2002|Phil Willon and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

The YWCA, which started the nation's first day-care center and has championed women's rights for 144 years, is struggling to reverse a decline that has forced more than half its chapters to close.

The latest is the YWCA of Central Orange County, which announced last week that it will shut down at the end of June after 81 years, no longer able to cover the costs of providing child care, after-school programs and other services for needy families who depend on the center.

In the last three decades, almost 400 of the 700 chapters of the Young Women's Christian Assn. have closed. Many officials at local YWCAs blame the decline on previous national leadership that allowed the nonprofit to lose its mission and become, in many cases, a social service agency burdened with increasing debt.

Those leading the effort to rebuild the organization said the YWCA lost its public identity and failed to keep up with the times. While its brother organization, the Young Men's Christian Assn., attracted thousands of new members by building state-of-the-art coed gyms and promoting other popular programs, many YWCAs stuck with outdated facilities and women-only events, said Sherri Rice of Reno, director of Nevada's only YWCA before it closed in 1999.

"Mothers stopped bringing their daughters to the YWCA," Rice said. "People saw it as a waning organization. The nation had passed it by."

The YWCA's new leaders, elected after a nationwide revolt by chapters, are moving quickly to save ailing YWCAs by adopting new strategies for fund-raising and changing the institution's profile to fit the 21st century. Resources will be funneled back to neighborhoods to help train local Ys to run more businesslike enterprises that can balance the needs to raise money and provide assistance to the community.

"We're refocusing ourselves.... There needed to be a change," said Audrey Peeples of Chicago, chairwoman of the YWCA's new National Coordinating Board. "We are strengthening the chapters that exist and strengthening the movement."

This is a formula that has proved successful for two of Southern California's healthiest YWCAs: chapters in Los Angeles and Fullerton. They tap anything from government grants to celebrity golf tournaments to raise money for their shelters and programs.

The YWCA of Central Orange County failed to make similar adjustments and racked up $600,000 in debt before opting to close. The demise of the institution leaves the county with just the Fullerton chapter, down from the five that once thrived in the area.

Many of the services provided by the Orange-based YWCA chapter, while valuable to the community, were becoming too costly to support. The infant-care program lost more than $5,000 a month for years until it folded in early November. Even when contributions started to dry up after the recent downturn on Wall Street and last year's terrorist attacks, the chapter's previous boards hesitated to cut services.

At the chapter's 1940s-era community center in Old Towne Orange on Friday, children made Christmas cards and tossed balls on the playground. The center serves about 100 children a day. While other groups are stepping in to keep many of the services going for now, some parents are scrambling to find other accommodations.

"This kind of hit like a bombshell," said Randy Levy, who must find a new child-care facility for his 8-year-old son.

Darlene Alvarez of Orange, who has three kids in the YWCA's after-school program, said she hates to see the center close because it has been a big part of her life.

"This has been here for years. It's going to be sadly missed," she said, even though she won't have any trouble finding a new after-school program for her children. "It's the nostalgia. We all know what the YWCA stands for."

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Clarity in Hindsight

Shannon Tucker, executive director of the YWCA of Central Orange County, said the chapter would have been wise to take a more businesslike approach to raising funds and cutting services.

But even when money was coming in, the money was going out just as fast, she said.

"I have no regrets," said Tucker, who has worked without pay since summer. "We could have been better businesspeople, but at the same time, look at the [programs we provided]. No one else was willing to do it."

Tucker said that if the new YWCA reforms had been adopted just a few years earlier, her chapter may have survived. The changes also came too late for chapters in Torrance, Redlands, Denver and Macon, Ga., and scores of others on college campuses.

The problems were so severe that in September 2000, chapter leaders staged a nationwide coup d'etat, voting to oust the YWCA's national board and focus the headquarters on raising the organization's national profile to bring more money and members to the chapters. The national YWCA has slashed its staff to 15 from 50 and is moving from New York to Washington, D.C., to amplify the organization's voice on civil rights and women's issues.

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