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Readers bestow top honors on YWCA

Best non-profit touches lives by stopping violence

No two stories are identical, but the common bonds between battered women who have escaped their abusers are powerful.

First and foremost, they have refused to become statistics; secondly, they have found the inner strength to walk away; third, in Missoula at least, many express gratitude to the staff and counselors at the YWCA-an organization the community recognized as Missoula's Best Non-Profit Organization in the Independent's annual contest.

The "Y," as it's often called by its clients, has been best known in recent years for its campaigns against domestic violence. Its clients, mostly women, come from all walks of life. Some have children while others are simply trying to get a leg up in a difficult world. But by the time they find themselves in the Y's mainstay Pathways Program, they have by and large run out of other options.

In a recent conversation, a pair of survivors relate their stories, hoping to let other endangered women will know there are people who can help. Fearing trouble, these women asked that their names not be used.

With her toddler on her lap, Janice (not her real name) describes a home life with almost no structure, which was tolerable until the name calling turned physical. "I put up with mental and verbal abuse for a long time," she says. "And if it wasn't for the physical abuse, I would still be there. I don't want to say it's all men, but men know how to control women quite well. They make you feel you can't do things on your own."

Push came to shove, so to speak, for Janice largely because her baby was in the room when she got hit; it was enough, she says, to send her looking for help. "That's the thing that worried me most-my daughter, she's just so little."

Nancy (also not her real name) moved to this country, she says, to be with the man she loved and pursue a career making jewelry and clothes. But once they were stateside, she says, she was told to forget it. "He broke my hopes," Nancy says. "I lost half my life to that guy. I never had friends. He didn't trust anybody, he always said I couldn't know what they wanted."

Stuck in a situation over which she says she had little control, Nancy says it took the eyes of child to set her off as well. One day, her little boy told Nancy that she was never happy, and that prompted her to look for a way out. "I kept my problems to myself, but somehow he picked up on those bad vibes," she says.

After bouncing in and out of her husband's house and staying with friends, she finally made the break permanent when she found out about the Y. "When I was really struggling to leave, I found the Y," she says. "It was very scary, but scary in a good way. I'm glad to be here. The kindness is very genuine, it's amazing. A couple of years ago, I felt like 28 going on 103; now I feel like I'm 30 going on 23."

From help with child care to counseling to job training, Nancy and Janice say they have been well served by the YWCA. In fact, these women say that the support has opened options for them they didn't know existed.

For Cindy Raymond, the group's new executive director, that's a sign that she and her staff are doing their jobs. Noting that the Y has been in Missoula for 86 years, Raymond explains that the Pathways Program provides women in Missoula County and beyond with a resource to combat domestic and sexual violence.

Adding that there are a host of programs which come under Pathways, including transitional housing for women with no place left to go, and the only sexual assault crisis line in the county outside of the one at the University of Montana, Raymond says that each of the Y's programs must fit into the group's philosophy.

"Our concern for women is very broad," she says. "That's why the YWCA has been so stable in the community. The key is to always reflect on why you exist. Does what we do reflect why we do it? We are constantly reflecting on the reason we're here.

"We have a clear mission of eliminating violence. Our programs are the way in which we do that."

In addition to the Pathways Program, the YWCA offers a breast cancer wellness program, runs a thrift store, and has just been selected by the Missoula City/County Health Department to be an on-site HIV testing and information center. The organization is also accepting nominations for its own best of Missoula awards, the 11th annual Salute to Excellence, which will be held on Thursday, April 23. For information call 543-6691.

YWCA Executive Director Cindy Raymond (first row, fifth from the left), and her staff won the first ever Best Non-Profit Organization award in the 1998 Best of Missoula readers' poll. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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