The YWCA of Spokane shelters 500 battered women, teaches 1,000 disabled people to swim a year and clothes 950 families a month.
It’s an umbrella covering people no one else in Spokane does - and one that’s leaking.
Water, pooling on the Y’s aging and flat roofs, seeped inside after the November ice storm. Chunks of insulation and ceiling tile began dropping in December.
The YWCA has been named the No. 1 water fitness program in the state six years in a row, but there is no money to fix $60,000 damage to the pool roof. Damage to the foundation totals another $60,000.
The Young Women’s Christian Association building on West Broadway needs to be replaced or overhauled. A succession of four directors in four years divided and demoralized the staff.
Enter Monica Walters. The new executive director that the board of directors is betting on to staunch the Y’s leaks is 46, a Spokane-educated manager, single mother of three and Minnesota native who can perfectly imitate every character in the movie “Fargo.”
An hour before the Y’s annual meeting in January, Walters crawls under the Y’s Olympic-sized pool, dressed like a Ghostbuster. She and a structural engineer just reach the farthest point in the building’s bowels looking for water damage when someone turns out the lights.
“This,” Walters deadpans, “was not in my job description.”
Walters has already made tough calls: closing the Y’s community child-care program last month and laying off seven people. The board agreed the program was less than half full and losing money. Meals that had been prepared in-house are now purchased from School District 81 to cut costs at the Y’s Transitional School. Insurance money to repair water-damaged offices and a portion of the roof is being stretched to upgrade corridors and other work stations.
Walters has teamed with Angela Sheffield, 37, a former director of management services with Los Angeles County and now associate executive director. Sheffield’s accounting experience brings a fiscal yin to Walters’ nurturing yang.
After the roof fell in, the women split a temporary office so dark and dusty Walters had to use an inhaler to work there.
But staff and board members say things are looking brighter at last.
“We’ve been in transition since 1992. It’s like we were trying on shoes and we finally found a wonderful set,” says Joanne Shiosaki, community relations director.
“I call them the Dream Team,” says Cheryl Weixel, fitness director. “They’re not miracle workers, they’re workers. The Y is on a big turn.”
Walters’ first day of work was Nov. 19, the day of the ice storm. Then the roof fell in. She told friends there was nowhere to go but up.
Supervising nearly 100 employees and an annual budget of $1.9 million, her days unfold like a dizzying menu. She negotiates a lease with a physical therapist, discusses Head Start slots with staff, then reviews the Y’s policy on weapons brought to the battered women’s shelter. The Y handles some of the highest-risk clients in town: 1,800 women got protection orders against partners or referrals to attorneys there in 1996.
Walters comes to meetings with her lunch, but never has time to eat. Her style is part-counselor, part-girlfriend confidante, but the zinger comes at some point in every meeting: “How will this impact the budget?”
Her combination of social conscience and analytic skills is rare, says her former boss, Bob Faltermeyer, executive director of Excelsior Youth Center.
Walters worked as a counselor and associate director at Excelsior, a residential center for emotionally disturbed children, for 17 years.
As director at Transitions, the Dominican Network’s programs for women, she was at a community meeting last summer when interim Y director Faith Rein spied her and immediately zeroed in. Brought in from the national YWCA, Rein specializes in setting floundering Ys to right. She recruited Walters heavily.
“We felt this was a job made for her and her experience had prepared her to step into it,” says board president Sally Pritchard.
Still, it’s like being suited to a two-headed octopus.
The Y’s programs include helping low-income women get Pap smears and mammograms, therapeutic day care for abused and neglected kids and 3-on-3 basketball for 83 little girls. Clients are often poor. Low membership fees keep all programs accessible.
“The flip side is that’s one reason why the YWCA has always lived on the financial edge,” says Pritchard.
An aging building and poor management compounded the problems. The building doesn’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Last fall, an annual appeal letter that traditionally draws up to $30,000 was never sent out.
Low salaries made it hard to attract and keep staff. Three finance directors came and left in three years. The YWCA board adopted a new pay scale in July 1996, raising all pay and promising to do more. But salaries remain low compared to other Spokane agencies.
The head of the Alternatives to Domestic Violence program, who has a master’s degree, must hold down a second job. For five years, the fitness director brought her computer from home to run the aquatics program. Building improvements occur when staff paint or wallpaper. When the pool needs grouting, painting and cleaning each year, the fitness staff climbs in to do it.
Meanwhile, demand for services is growing: The number of women and children counseled at the Y rocketed from 495 in 1995 to 737 in 1996, and calls to the crisis line doubled. Every day, Walters hears of another program the Y could offer.
“It’s probably one of the biggest challenges in Spokane for human services,” says Mike Ryan, agencies director for Catholic Charities.
At January’s annual meeting, Walters circulates among volunteers, shaking hands warmly. An hour later, she’s back on her hands and knees, trying to turn the hot water valve on for volunteers wanting to do the dishes.
“I’m no miracle worker,” Walters cautions.
She took the job to make a difference in Spokane.
Educated by Dominican sisters in Minneapolis, her sense of social justice grew through psychology and sociology studies at Gonzaga University and graduate work in counseling at Whitworth College. For 20 years, she has worked with poor women and the throwaway children that everyone else has given up on.
Divorced since 1985, Walters has raised three children alone, Trevor, 19, Anthony, 15, and Alicia, 13. She learned to juggle five tasks at once and the importance of community support.
“There’s a myth that single parents are single. It’s impossible to be, everyone needs a support system,” Walters says.
Her support includes Carla Nuxoll, the U.S. secretary of education’s regional representative who was her college roommate and remains her closest friend. It included child-friendly workplaces that understood the importance of balancing work with family. The desire to help others succeed as she did is obvious in her defense of the Y.
“Monica embodies the Y’s mission,” says Shiosaki. “She cares about families and kids and she has a track record. People aren’t just statistics and numbers. She has a heart.”
Walking through the Y, Walters and Sheffield are incensed that families in crisis enter rooms that feel second-rate. Despite the staff’s heroic attempts to make the Y homey and welcoming, paint cannot cover dingy hallways or worn furniture.
Walters wants people to begin seeing the YWCA’s renovation as part of downtown’s revitalization. She wants to expand services to the recovering cardiac patients who already exercise there, reach teens on the edge of trouble, rent the Comstock Room to the public.
“We can really see what it can be,” says Sheffield. “For us the biggest hurdle is fund raising and marketing. We have so many ideas, we just need to make them reality and get the community behind us, and that’s where the real work begins.”
Community support is one place they may have a 94-year head start. The YWCA is a cornerstone Spokane agency with wide name recognition and loyal volunteers.
“‘These women are tough,” says Walters. “The programs haven’t been disrupted because of the staff and volunteers.” Longtime supporter Ellen Ferris says working in partnership with the staff is what gives the YWCA its ability to take on tough jobs.
“It’s been the people that have made it the most viable social service agency in town,” says Ferris.”We dare to look at the things other people haven’t.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: YWCA programs YWCA of Spokane programs include: Alternatives to Domestic Violence, with a 24-hour crisis line. Confidential Safe Shelter. Legal Advocacy Office. Early Childhood Education Assistance Program. Therapeutic Child Development. Transition School and after-school program for homeless children. Encore Plus, a breast cancer exercise and support service. Summer day camp. Adaptive aquatics. Fitness and swimming: children and adult, lifeguard training, warm-water exercise. Girls’ 3-on-3 basketball. Massage therapy. Diversity training. Free family clothing bank. Professional women’s clothing bank. Necessities bank. Women of Achievement Leadership lunch. For information call 326-1190.
Click here to comment on this story »