Woman of the House

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TO SAY THAT YWCA O‘AHU HAS EXPERIENCED QUITE A BIT THROUGHOUT THE YEARS WOULD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT. So, with the start of 2020 ushering in its 120th anniversary, it should come as no surprise that the local nonprofit organization is finding lots worth celebrating as it revisits its storied history.

It was in 1908, for example, that YWCA began offering the very first version of its transitional housing for women. Not only that, but it also began offering opportunities for leadership before women were granted the right to vote.

There even was a period of time when its Laniākea headquarters served as a restroom during the day when women’s employers had yet to accommodate their needs.

“YWCA was the only place where women could gather, socialize—and, plus, use the bathroom,” marvels Noriko Namiki, YWCA O‘ahu CEO.

Needless to say, it’s come a long way since.

“This 120th anniversary is really giving us perspective, in terms of what kind of role we have played in the community,” Namiki says. “As we see where we were and we are, and then where we need to be. I still feel there is a place and need for YWCA.”

Indeed, its impact on the community today remains profound, and the programs it offers across three locations—Laniakea, Fernhurst and Kokokahi—number many.

YWCA still offers a host of health and wellness programs, for instance, to its more than 800 members. Among them are aquatics exercises, which have a bit of backstory, as well.

“We’ve been doing this actually for more than 100 years,” Namiki shares. “Those were the days when women were not encouraged to exercise, and also those were the days when women were not actually encouraged to expose their skin, or even be in the regular pool.

“But the architect of this building (Laniakea), Julia Morgan, she was so ahead of her time,” she adds. “She said, ‘That is nonsense; women also have to be able to build strong bodies for them to be successful in life,’ so she purposefully created this regular-sized pool for women.”

YWCA continues to foster leadership development, too, with an all-female board of directors who run meetings, vote on matters and openly share what’s on their minds in a safe environment.

Other initiatives, such as Dress for Success, its Fernhurst transitional housing facility— which, according to Namiki, is the state’s only community- based work furlough program currently available to women outside of prison— and the Patsy T. Mink Center for Business & Leadership, meanwhile, offer ample opportunity for economic advancement. The latter welcomes applicants to its Girls’ Summit Youth and Girls’ Summit for middle and high-school students, respectively; Patsy T. Mink Launch My Business, supporting females as they embark on their entrepreneurial endeavors; and the Patsy T. Mink Leadership Alliance, for mid-career women.

“This is our fourth year running it, and we only have space for 20 women,” Namiki states of the Patsy T. Mink Leadership Alliance. “This year, we had 40 applicants, so that alone, you can see, how people really are seeking leadership opportunities, or just development opportunities in general.”

Of course, the organization more than welcomes a show of support from the community, beginning with an open invitation to simply stop by and learn what it’s all about. Twice each month, YWCA invites the community to YWConnect to tour its downtown facilities. It also regularly seeks volunteers willing to pitch in with Dress for Success, as job coaches and mentors, or at its Kokokahi campsite.

In the meantime, YWCA still is thinking up ways to mark its 120-year milestone. Part of that, Namiki believes, will include sharing more of its history with the community. She also expects that its Leader Luncheon in May will have quite the jubilant atmosphere, especially as it also happens to be the oldest event of its kind that honors women leaders in Hawai‘i.

And as Namiki looks to YWCA’s future, she knows that the organization’s work is far from complete.

“Take the wage gap, for example,” she says. “We’re not there yet.”

Other inequalities exist as well, Namiki continues, in business and the government … So her hope is that YWCA remains steadfast to its long-term goals.

“I hope we can continue to stay relevant and true to our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women,” she says. “My actual hope is that there will be a day where there’s no need for YWCA … but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Until then, Namiki is confident that YWCA will continue to serve as a beacon for women of all ages, including those in their 90s who utilize its health programs.

“I see YWCA as a community gathering place, where they will find resources, and also meet people and make their lives better.” ywcaoahu.org

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