YWCA of Steubenville is 100

STEUBENVILLE – When people ask Marlyn Neely what they get for their $25 annual membership to the YWCA of Steubenville, the executive director is upfront and direct.

“I tell them absolutely nothing,” Neely acknowledges with a shrug of her shoulders.

Then there’s a slight pause.

“You don’t get anything tangible anyway,” she leans forward with the admission, “but you get the opportunity to help another woman – that’s what you get,” Neely said from her office at the YWCA located at 320 N. Fourth St., Steubenville.

“You’re helping to improve the lives of fellow women and children, and a well-rounded, well-adjusted woman is a better mother, wife, daughter, better worker, better community person, better everything, so even though we’re all about women, other people derive benefits (ultimately) from that, too,” Neely said.

“That’s all for a modest fee of $25 a year, just 25 little dollars you get to be a part of improving a woman’s life. Can you put a pricetag on that?”

Neely’s comments come during what is a milestone year for the YWCA of Steubenville, which is marking its 100th anniversary.

There will be a special celebration in light of that, and it’s an occasion open to the public, according to Neely.

The theme of the observance is “Tying Generations Together, Honoring the Past and Looking to the Future.” It will be a low-key luncheon at the YWCA on April 24, beginning at noon and ending at 1:30 p.m. There is no program per se and no awards but there will be some jazz music performed courtesy of students from Steubenville High School. The luncheon is an appreciation of a 10-decade presence in the community.

The cost is $15 per person with April 16 the deadline for reservations. Tickets are available at the YWCA by calling (740) 282-1261, the same number area residents can call to become supporting members with that $25 annual membership fee. Or checks can be made out to the YWCA and mailed there at 320 N. Fourth St., Steubenville, OH 43952.

The YWCA has 200 members.

“It’s for the general public,” Neely said of the luncheon, inviting anyone interested to attend and learn about a community resource that has had its share of identity issues through the years.

“Most people I think used to call us the Fourth Street country club, and nothing is further from the truth,” she said. Although it does host card parties, it’s not a place exclusively for that, and it’s not to be confused with a place to go and work out either, Neely said.

“We’re celebrating a century of community service, successful community service,” she said.

Invitations have been sent to women from YWCAs around Ohio with local high schools urged to send representatives. It will involve the Y Teens from Steubenville High School, which is one of the YWCA’s programs.

The YWCA’s mission statement is “To Eliminate Racism and Empower Women.”

“We’ve always been about working women from the very get-go, and that’s still what the YWCA is today,” Neely said, “and it’s a lot more than that with women’s rights. It’s just not about in the workplace but the treatment of women period, especially in the Third World countries.”

The YWCA is the oldest and largest multicultural women’s organization in the world. It has been in existence for 159 years and has 25 million members in 122 countries.

The first YWCA was a spin-off from the Industrial Revolution in London, where many women and girls left the rural areas to work in the factories in the city, Neely explained of the organization’s beginnings.

“In 1855, Emma Roberts set up a prayer circle in her home on the outskirts of London,” Neely said. “She brought together 23 women to hold intercession prayer for young women – they called themselves the Young Women’s Christian Association,” she said.

“At the same time, Lady Jane Kinnaird, a social activist, concerned with the safety of the women that moved to the city, raised funds and opened housing for single women in London. The two women converged, and the YWCA was born,” Neely said.

The YWCA made its first appearance in the United States in 1858 when New York and Boston opened women’s residences. In 1860, the YWCA opened the first boarding house in New York for female students, teachers and factory workers as women moved from the farms to the city.

YWCAs around the world offer a variety of programs, depending on their size, cultural values and community needs, according to Neely.

The YWCA of Steubenville, meanwhile, was organized in January 1913 as a result of an Evangelistic campaign conducted by Billy Sunday. A member of his group, Miss Miller, formed a Bible class of young women, and they became the nucleus of the YWCA. The charter meeting was held in the home of Mrs. J.M. Kelly, and Mrs. Dohrman J. Sinclair was elected the first president.

The original home of the YWCA was the First United Presbyterian Manse on North Fifth Street. The present YWCA building was constructed in 1984. Next to it is a building that functions as the YWCA’s primary program – safe, affordable housing for indigent women.

A United Way agency, the YWCA “is committed to reaching out to the women and girls in the community. It is our goal to keep current with the ongoing worldy issues and help women overcome them by lending a helping hand along with educating them on how they can become productive members of their community.”

The YWCA’s women’s residence, which can accommodate up to eight women, is a “safe place for women to live while they are pursuing education or returning to the work force. The women range from between 18 to 60 and come from many diverse backgrounds. “We try to help women get trained, we do not do training, but we help to find sources of training, and are always encouraging education and bettering yourself,” Neely said.

“The women come to us for various reasons. Some have been physically or mentally abused. Some have made bad choices and are suffering the repercussions. Some have had a streak of bad luck. One thing they have in common is that they are all economically deprived,” Neely said.

There is no time limit on their stay, which depends on need and availability. The women pay a percent of their income for rent, but if they have no income, “we try to find a funding source,” Neely said, noting grants and donations are sought.

The YWCA social hall, meanwhile, provides accommodations for business and individual groups for lunches or meetings, including the Steubenville Kiwanis Club and the Rotary Club of Steubenville.

The local board of the YWCA is led by Christine Hargrave, president, and also includes Jennifer Cesta, Mary Joy VanDyne, Terri Antil, Malinda Lewis, Nancy Brown and Johnna Provenzano.

Several times a year, the YWCA board members and staff host card parties for the public.

When it comes to community outreach programs, youth programs include girls day camps, Y-Teen programs and a culinary camp.

“A part of what we do is constantly change to meet the needs of the community,” Neely said. “These young women out here are our future communities, so we constantly strive to keep contacts and draw more young women in,” she said. While the YWCA has a Y Teens program in place at Steubenville High School, a program that promotes volunteerism, it hopes to branch out and initiate similar groups at Harding Middle School and at Indian Creek, according to Neely.

“We concentrate on women ecomonics development and building self-esteem, and once a year we do our volunteerism thing, going to Martha Manor (assisted living in Steubenville) taking cookies and little gifts to the residents there,” she said.

Summer day camps give girls an opportunity to have fun, fellowship, learn new things and build self-esteem.

Another outreach program of the YWCA is a monthly adult “Lunch and Learn,” Neely said.

The first one is May 15 and open to the general public. It will focus on “Investments 101,” led by Cory Wingett of Edward Jones. “It’s the foundation for investing designed for those who think they can’t afford to invest and how to get started,” Neely said.

There also will be one on budgeting and life skills training.

“Everything we do is to equip women for self-sufficiency. That’s the goal,” Neely said.

How successful the YWCA is at its mission is not always easy to discern, but Neely is commited to the cause.

“The big reward is when I see ‘Sally’ who stayed here three months is back on her feet. Those are the big rewards,” Neely said.

“If I’ve helped one out of 10 women who come through my door, I’ve done a good job.”

Neely wants to put the YWCA on the map.

“More have heard of it now than when I came here, but it’s still not where we would like it to be,” she said. “We’d like YWCA to be a household word, especially in households that have all the girls.”

Her goal as the YWCA continues its work is “I want people to deem us as an important fixture in the community, to see the work as being as important as we see it.”

As for future plans, Neely said, “We are building on what we have. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Neely said. “If we can finetune what we have, we can expand as we see the need. We want to be respected as a community service,” she said.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)