University District

YWCA celebrates years 100 of empowering women and communities

Shamika Williams is fiercely independent.

She doesn’t like to ask for help and prides herself on always making it to work and getting her kids — ages 13, nine, four and three — to school on time.

In late February, she bought her family a modest brick home in Raleigh.

“I wanted my kids to be able to breathe, grow, run, be outside. Have that kind of freedom,” she said. “I went out and I looked for houses. I didn’t tell anyone, not even the kids.”

But Williams’ life looked very different just a few months ago.

In fall 2018, she was planning a wedding. She started attending her fiance’s church and seeing less of her friends from her former church. She moved in with her fiance, but within two months, he was verbally and emotionally abusing her. In September 2018, he kicked Williams and her children out of their home in a fit of rage.

“Some people think that it only has to be physical and it doesn’t,” Williams said of her fiance’s abuse. “It can be emotional. It can be verbal.”

She didn’t know where to go and she turned to Marquiepta Odom, a member of her church.

Odom is interim executive director of the YWCA of Greater Memphis, which is headquartered at 766 South Highland Street. Through the assistance Williams received at the domestic violence shelter of the YWCA, she was able to safely transition her family to a long term home.

The Memphis YWCA is celebrating its centennial in 2019, and its core mission has remained to empower women and girls and and dismantle barriers to racial equality. When the YWCA launched in Memphis in 1919, it was one of only three locations in the city were Black and white citizens could hold integrated meetings.

The YWCA’s largest program is its domestic violence shelter.

“Currently, Memphis is number seven for domestic violence in the country,” said Odom. “Unfortunately, Memphis ranks number one the state of Tennessee for deaths, murders by domestic violence.”

Williams attributes her journey from homelessness to homeowner to her independence, guidance from her higher power and the support she received at the YWCA of Greater Memphis.

“I got out just in time to see those true colors and be able to walk away,” she said. “I think Ms. Odom was kind of like my angel that came at the right time, at the right moment as I was going through all this.”

A New and Improving YWCA

YWCA’s programming focuses on three core areas: helping families rebuild after domestic violence, after school programming and tutoring in underserved schools and GED and job training at their Sarah Brown Branch at 1044 Mississippi Boulevard.

The shelter offers 42 beds for women and children escaping domestic violence. Men are accepted as well, though the shelter is mainly for women. Almost 75 percent of clients are children. The shelter, which is located in a former apartment building, will expand in to the building’s second floor.  The expansion will add 36 beds and 11 new employees to their current staff of 57.

“We will be able to assist more clients, which means we’re helping someone else to be safe and help them rebuild their lives and rebuild their destinies,” said Odom, who was the shelter coordinator from January 2015 until August 2018 when she took over as interim director for YWCA of Greater Memphis.

Chenille Lynch is the Memphis YWCA’s director of accounts receivable and compliance and has been with the organization for 19 years. 

“You have to have the heart for it,” she said. “When I see the success stories and I see people really get their footing, and really come to terms with their situation and decide to move on and form healthy relationships and are able to take care of their children, that makes it all worth while for me — the long hours, the short funding.”

Most programs are free, especially for shelter clients.

“Money and finance, that’s an issue,” said Lynch. “That holds back a lot of clients from getting the help they need.”

Holistic Services for Whole-Family Empowerment

The exact address of the shelter is a closely guarded secret. The shelter and the Sarah Brown Branch training facility are located in South Memphis’ 38126 ZIP code, one of the poorest ZIP codes in Memphis.

Odom said a lack of access to training opportunities, employers and transportation make it difficult for many women in South Memphis to learn new skills or earn a living wage.

The YWCA offers GED classes and job training in customer service, computer repair and forklift operation. Odom said the programs have waned in recent years, but they’re now working on several new grants and partnerships. They plan to update classes with new techniques and technologies and partner with William R. Moore College of Technology on new certifications like automotive service and with local employers to forgive criminal backgrounds of potential employees.

“Our vision is to make sure that our program is better than it was one to 20 years ago when our training and development center was top-notch,” Odom said.

Once a client enters the shelter, a case manager connects them to services including counseling and medical care, employment and job training, legal assistance, housing, transportation and more. They’re finalizing a new grant that would bring security and regular counseling to the shelter. A nurse practitioner currently visits to provide health and wellness education and administer some medications.

The YWCA offers before school and aftercare at E.E Jeter Elementary School and Millington, Macon Hall Elementary School in Cordova and and Shady Grove Elementary School in Memphis. The nonprofit also offers tutoring and field trips for 300 students in six other schools across Memphis.

Advocates with the Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center will soon begin working on site with the shelter’s youth to help them process trauma. The YWCA is applying for a grant to fund a summer tutoring program at the shelter as well.

The YWCA of Greater Memphis also works to educate the larger community on issues of domestic violence. In 2018, they worked with nearly 2,000 people at health fairs, churches, libraries and corporate events. 

A Place to Heal

The average stay at the shelter is 60 to 90 days, but the YWCA doesn’t set a limit so clients aren't pressured to return to a dangerous situation. Odom said people often have multiple barriers to independent living like past evictions, no personal transportation, disabilities or inadequate employment.

“We try to break every barrier that could cause them to end up right back in the cycle again,” she said.

“It’s not a one size fits all,” said Lynch. “If we see that they client is thriving and making steps in the right direction and they need a little more time, we give them a little more time.”

For Williams, the YWCA provided shelter and basic necessities and helped her find a car and affordable payment plan. When she she left the shelter in November, the YWCA helped her find an apartment, gave her supplies and helped with the down payment on her house.

Beyond housing assistance, Williams said the YWCA helped in less tangible ways. The staff, particularly Odom, were there to listen, act as mentors and provide assurance that she was on the right path.

“She felt the tears, she felt the pain and she could relate to it. And that’s why I love her so much,” said Williams of her many long talks with Odom, who is herself a survivor of domestic violence.

When Williams closed on her house just five months after she first entered the shelter, Odom was the first person she called.

“She is a great person to just be around. Her experience itself, it helps you,” said Williams. “It helps you see when you’re going through such a rough time in your life and you can see this person who’s been through the same thing as you succeed and you just feel like you can do it too.”

Odom said she’s lucky that her experience and has led her to the YWCA and to charting the organization at the beginning of its next century.

“My purpose, my passion and my profession found a way to merge and I found a way to live out what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “Now we’re here celebration our centennial celebration, and we’re in the process of making the [YWCA] better than it has ever been before to help keep us going to another 100 years.”

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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