Maine YWCA celebrates its survival

Posted Aug. 21, 2011, at 6:15 a.m.

LEWISTON — One year ago, the YWCA of Central Maine seemed reborn.

Four days after the 130-year-old Lewiston institution resigned itself to closure — stirring tears among leaders and staff and shocking lifelong members — the YWCA announced it would remain open.

Over the weekend, $75,000 in donations had come in. By the following week, the total hit $200,000. By week three, the pool of money was at $300,000.

It seemed so easy. It wasn’t.

“This past year was very, very difficult,” said Lee Young, the tough ex-mayor of Auburn who has served as the YWCA’s president for the past several years. “It was difficult on the board. It was very difficult for me and my life. My life totally changed.”

At age 70, Young sprang from retirement to work an average of three days a week, sometimes keeping up with meetings from more than 1,000 miles away.

The YWCA’s Board of Directors worked hard to find the right day-to-day leadership to re-energize the institution and its staff. First, they hired a fundraiser to ease the pressure on Executive Director Pam Gallant, the former aquatics director who had been nudged into the role. The fundraiser helped focus the money effort, but didn’t quite fit. By the spring, the fundraiser’s limited role had expired, Gallant was aquatics director again and a team of accountants were overseeing the operation.

Gallant then left and the board searched for a new executive director, Young said.

Today, the YWCA is still working to pay off the bills that it had accumulated during the bad years. Work is still being done to shrink an estimated annual fuel bill of $80,000.

But there are causes for celebration as well.

The fundraising total now stands at $600,000. Each one of those old bills, which once exceeded $150,000 but now total $50,000, is on a schedule to be paid in full. No new debts are being accumulated.

“If we are getting something from you, we are paying you for it,” Young said.

The YWCA has also completed an energy audit aimed at making its East Avenue headquarters green and efficient. Already, $180,000 has been set aside toward making energy changes. And the $565,000 mortgage has been reduced by $100,000. The refinancing arrangement and a 3.5 percent interest rate drop lowered the monthly payment by almost $2,000.

And at the start of July, the YWCA had a new executive director, Kathy Durgin-Leighton. Durgin-Leighton came here after 13 years working for the town of Bowdoinham, first as its recreation director, then as the head of economic development and finally as town manager.

On Sept. 11, the YWCA will celebrate its survival.

An open house will feature games and face painting, a silent auction, storytelling and a concert by Tinpanic Steel Band.

“We want to thank the people who have brought us this far,” Young said. “And we want to tell the community we are here to stay.”

The open house will show off recent changes at the YWCA, from flowers planted outside by Young to newly painted rooms and other maintenance efforts.

More importantly, they want to show off a new optimism.

Barbara Mushlit, who has attended the YWCA for 50 years, said she feels the change, even if she has trouble identifying specifics.

“I feel the optimism,” Mushlit said.

Three times a week, she drives 25 minutes into Lewiston from her home in Monmouth to attend “aquacise” classes. The classes help Mushlit, 70, maintain her strength and flexibility.

She believes last year’s closure announcement mobilized people in a way that nothing else could. Suddenly, people could see it as an institution that is central to the community.

“I think it woke up a lot of people,” she said. “I’m not worried anymore. I’m sure the YWCA is going to be here.”

The optimism is needed, Young said.

“We are starting another big push to get to our $1 million goal,” she said.

Young credits Durgin-Leighton with helping to change the atmosphere.

“She’s very capable, and she’s just energized the staff,” Young said. “She’s a breath of fresh air. She knows how to deal with people, and she’s not easily flustered.” She plans to use her municipal experience to apply for community development block grants. She has already reassigned people to different jobs and changed some wage positions to salaried.

“I am continually impressed by the dedication of the staff,” Durgin-Leighton said.

And though she knows the agency’s history — “I did my homework,” she said — she sees the YWCA as a place with enormous goodwill.

In her old job as Bowdoinham’s town manager, the negativity of government complainers wore her down. By comparison, the new job is a little like serving in a town where people want to pay taxes just to lend a hand.

Often, the first visitor comes to the YWCA by 5:15 a.m. By 8 a.m., there might be 45 or more people on the sign-in sheet.

Daily, she receives donations from the public.

“People come in every day and say, ‘What can I do?’” she said. Part of her job is finding people a way to help.

“It’s a good problem to have,” she said.

Copyright (c) 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

 

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