When Albion Fellows married Hilary Bacon, a prominent Evansville businessman, she quit her job as a court stenographer and lived a tranquil, comfortable life in a First Street mansion. But Fellows Bacon, born in 1865, felt called to more. A tour of a slum tenement opened her eyes to the poverty and homelessness plaguing a fast-growing Evansville, and she wrote, spoke, and lobbied the government about social reform issues. The YWCA, an organization she founded, turns 100 this year. Executive director Erika Taylor and city leaders, including Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, will celebrate the centennial on March 3.
The Working Girls’ Association, a forerunner of the YWCA (118 Vine St.), provided refuge and support for women who had long commutes for their Evansville jobs. In 1979, the YWCA became a shelter for victims of domestic violence. “I think that showed a lot of vision and guts on behalf of the board,” says Taylor. “It was a controversial topic in 1979.
Later, leaders added a residential program for homeless women with substance abuse problems. The program has found success: Eighty-six percent of women remaining in the program for at least 90 days find employment, and 70 percent of graduates maintain sobriety for a two-year monitoring period. Several have returned to the program to act as mentors, advocates, or sponsors.
One YWCA program, Live Y’ers, begins with at-risk female students at Lodge and Glenwood schools and follows them through Bosse High School. The after-school program encourages girls to graduate from high school and delay pregnancy, and it connects girls with mentors and leads them in activities from cooking to career education. Taylor says that in 2010, the program boasted a 100 percent graduation rate (compared to 78 percent for Bosse High School overall) and a pregnancy rate of 2.1 percent (the national average for at-risk minority girls is 15.3 percent).
Tea rooms were the coffeehouses of the first half of the 20th century. Women owned most of these fashionable places to meet friends. The YWCA’s tea room remains today, but it isn’t just for ladies who lunch. The YWCA welcomed Food Network star Alton Brown when he stopped in Evansville during a cross-country trip. He raved about the tea room’s herb chicken salad, proclaiming it “just the right balance of tarragon and dill.” High praise for a menu comprised of recipes from board members.
The YWCA does more than fill bellies. In the mid-1920s, the YWCA’s Aqua Maids formed. Their legacy of synchronized swim classes continues as seven women, most in their 70s and 80s, meet often to practice their routines.
On March 3, the nonprofit celebrates its milestone birthday with the Founders Day Celebration and Open House, an event honoring 100 Evansville women dedicated to improving the city over the past 100 years. To nominate, visit www.ywcaevansville.org. Nominations are due Feb. 1.