YWCA Rhode Island celebrates milestone anniversary


Statewide association, the third oldest in the country, is 150 years old




YWCA Rhode Island will observe its 150th anniversary in June and invites the public to a reception celebrating the organization’s history, its contributions statewide, and its future.


The party will take place Monday, June 5, from 5:30-8 p.m. at Roger Williams Park Botanical Center and Gardens, Providence. A highlight will be a walking path showcasing photos from YWCA history. There also will be food (hearty hors d’oeuvres and sweets), a silent auction and time for networking.


Honorary chairpersons are state Senator Donna Nesselbush (D-Dist 15, Pawtucket, North Providence), and Providence City Councilwoman Sabina Matos, both of whom have ties to the organization.


“As we celebrate our past, we are focused on building the future,” says Deborah Perry, president and CEO of the growing organization, which operates diverse programs at locations in Woonsocket, Central Falls, Providence and Coventry.


The YWCA in Rhode Island was founded in 1867 in Providence by seven women concerned about providing a home away from home for young women who had migrated to the city in search of work. That makes it the third oldest YW in the country, and as early as 1879, the organization’s programs included an employment bureau.


Supporting and economically empowering girls and women remains a focus, but the ways those goals are accomplished has evolved. While a boarding house, at 54 North Main St., Providence, and then a summer residence as a vacation retreat were the manifestations a century and a half ago, today’s programs look much different.


Now there is Rosie’s Girls, which introduces girls to non-traditional trades, like construction, which can lead to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, and programs such as the Fantastic Girltastic Code Company, “designed to make computer sciences relevant, cool, hip and exciting,” Perry explains.


Before YWCA Rhode Island, there was the YWCA of Woonsocket (established 1921, later renamed YWCA Northern Rhode Island), YWCA of Providence, and YWCA Pawtucket/Central Falls (1890). The latter two merged in 1932 to form YWCA Greater Rhode Island, and in 2011 YWCA Northern Rhode Island was added to create the statewide organization.


Individually and together, these organizations have done ground-breaking work. In 1980, YWCA of Northern Rhode Island started Parenting in Progress, offering teen mothers academic courses leading to a GED along with parenting instruction and support services. It was a paradigm for the Sheila “Skip” Nowell Leadership Academy, a charter school established in 2012 and named for a former executive director, that serves 360 at-risk students at two locations.


Other YWCA programs have spun off into separate agencies, including the International Institute, Travelers’ Aid (now Crossroads, RI) and the Plantations Club. YWCA Greater Rhode Island helped establish the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center, now called Day One; served as the first home for Progreso Latino, and as the home of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Its support group for LGBTQQ youth turned into Youth Pride Inc.


Because child care is crucial to working families, the YWCA has for years operated before- and after-school programs, summer camps and a state-licensed preschool. Woonsocket’s preschool has been in operation since 1923.


The YWCA’s physical presence has grown with the mergers and recent acquisitions. Two years ago it purchased assets of the former Nickerson House in Olneyville, which included a community center and 50 units of transitional housing for veterans as well as a 60-acre property in Coventry. The community center is “full to capacity,” Perry says, with after-school programs, an artists’ collaborative, one of the Nowell Academy branches, and leased space for Dr. Day Care.


“When I think about our history and measure it against our current programs and strategic plan, it is clear to me that we have not strayed from the original mission of our foremothers,” says President/CEO Perry. “It’s a mission that is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. A mission that empowers women and girls through programs, services and advocacy, and one that helps individuals explore and experience the world in a way they may not have otherwise imagined possible.”


Tickets for the 150th anniversary celebration are $35 and are available online at ywcari.org or by calling (401) 351-2241.






State Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D, District 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) and honorary chairperson: “I was the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence from 1984 to 1992. In the late ’80s, Buddy Cianci was revitalizing downtown Providence, and we could no longer afford the rent. Helenka Markewlewicz, the then executive director of YWCA Greater Rhode Island, welcomed us into their Central Falls location with open arms. At that time, the YWCA was shedding its cloak of fitness and recreation and wrapping itself around the most important women’s issues of the day, including violence against women. The Coalition Against Domestic Violence owes a debt of gratitude to the YWCA, as do all women and men in our state. Deborah Perry and the legacy of past stewards are helping to pave the way to true equality, and we still have a ways to go…!


Providence City Councilwoman Sabina Matos (Ward 15: Olneyville, Silver Lake Valley, West End) and honorary chairperson: “The YWCA plays such an important role in our communities, and its dedicated work supports those who need it most. In my own neighborhood of Olneyville, the YWCA became the lifeline that saved the Nickerson Community Center. This partnership has proven itself critical to ensuring the center's legacy and services will continue to serve our community for years to come.”  


Linda A. Cipriano, executive director, YWCA of Greater Rhode Island (1993-2004): “The story of YWCA Rhode Island is truly a tapestry woven by 15 decades of women who had faith, boldness and determination. Their work created an ever adaptive narrative of pioneering results that reflected societal change and economic and personal growth within each decade for generations of Rhode Island women and families. It is a treasured part of Rhode Island Women’s History and a tribute to all those who have woven a piece of it.”