Tonawanda News — The years are captured in scraps of fragile, yellowing newsprint, black-and-white photos and hand-written notes.
They trace a line from the days of embroidery and dress-making classes, through dances and book clubs and teen groups, right up to the domestic-violence prevention and anti-racism efforts of today.
As the YWCA Tonawandas heads into its 100th year — and toward its anniversary Sept. 11, 2013 — members are both planning events to mark the occasion and combing back through years of scrapbooks for perspective on how the group became what it is today.
In whatever form YWCA activities have taken over the years, said Jill Townson, YWCA Tonawandas executive director, it’s all been about empowering women.
“When the Industrial Revolution came, women were leaving the farms,” she said. “They were instead trying to get jobs in factories. They needed a place to stay. Now the transitional housing we do is for women escaping domestic violence. We’ve responded to a need in the community.”
The YWCA has extensive archives detailing that journey, including scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings and many photos. Anniversary committee members and YWCA staff have been reading through them, gathering a wealth of detail on those who started the group and how it evolved over the years.
“There is so much information,” said Jean Harmon, co-chair of the 100th anniversary committee, gently turning the pages of one book. “We’ll never have time to go over it all.”
Harmon and co-chair Pat Zbieszkowski pointed out details — including how older newspapers habitually used the man’s name with “Mrs.” or “Miss” tacked on instead of the woman’s — and how even the language used has changed over the years. They’ve discovered a number of bits of information, such as the fact that the group apparently once owned beachfront property in Wilson (although no one has yet discovered what happened to it) and that a resolution in the state legislative in the 1930s called for the cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda to merge, although it obviously never happened.
Some things never change, however.
“The part that has not changed is trying to raise funds, although they were more successful,” Zbieszkowski said. “The fund-raising is still an issue.”
Records and articles show that the YWCA, located in the same building on Tremont Street that it inhabits today, had 600 to 700 members the day that it opened, they said.
Newspaper clippings tell how young women “thronged” the building, how “every line of work” was represented and that classes for dress-making, English, stenography, Bible study, embroidery, millinery, cooking and more were held — but the most popular attraction was the gymnasium.
“It was the social center for both communities,” Zbieszkowski said, adding that in those days of heightened immigration and the heyday of Ellis Island, the classes marked a way for young women to learn what they needed to make their way in the world. “You needed to have skills, you needed to know English. This was the perfect place for them to come.”
Over the years, the popularity of various activities rose and fell. Teen groups and book clubs and crafts took on a greater role from the 1950s to the 1970s. Harmon said that the preschool program was so popular in those days that parents who wished to enroll their children might have to spend up to two years on a waiting list.
In the 1980s, the focus began to change a bit more. The hiring of the first person to focus on the YWCA’s anti-domestic violence efforts in 1985 marked a shift in how the family violence issues were handled, Zbieszkowski said.
“For many years, it was ‘You made your bed; you sleep in it.’ That was the attitude,” she said. “It wasn’t talked about. It was behind closed doors, pretty much.”
These days, the group focuses on the issue, as well as its anti-racism efforts, while still maintaining social programs, its preschool and other events.
“It was a social organization,” Harmon said. “It became a service organization”
The centennial events will kick off with an airing of the film “Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep as Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The movie will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.
General admission tickets are $5, available at the door and the YWCA at 49 Tremont St., North Tonawanda. Special advance-sale tickets of $20 will include an hors d’oeuvre reception at 6:30 p.m. at the theater. Tickets are available at the YWCA.
The February film screening will be followed by a luncheon April 13 with some of the YWCA’s past leaders and, hopefully, descendants of some of the original founders. In July, they hope to have a float in the Canal Fest parade, and the celebration will wind up Sept. 14 with a dinner and reception.
Those who have historical information on the group to share or who wish to take part in the event can call the YWCA at 692-5580.