September 2, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria YWCA celebrates century of empowerment

ELYRIA — Anita Crosby knows her story isn’t picture-perfect. In fact, if her life was reduced down to just one single image, it would be torn, tattered and worn from years of abuse.

Crosby, 42, a recovering drug addict going on eight years clean, was once beaten so badly by her boyfriend she ended up in the hospital; she’s struggled to keep a roof over her head; she’s dealing with the reality that her son is facing capital murder charges after a botched 2011 robbery in led to a 28-year-old Lorain man’s death.

“You know, people are always asking me how I have stayed clean or why I have stayed clean,” the gregarious woman said Wednesday. “I mean, there were days when I should have been grateful to be alive, but I just wasn’t happy. Still, I kept my faith, reached out to my support systems and took it one day at a time.”

Crosby, who is one week away from moving into her own Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority apartment, took a huge step toward her own self-sufficiency.

She called the Elyria YWCA and entered the organization’s transitional housing program for women.

“When you are out living you own life, you want to keep going, but some part of me had to say, ‘I need that extra help,’ ” she said.

Until she moves, Crosby calls the nonprofit’s home — a three-story, century-old house on Third Street and West Avenue in Elyria — her home.

On Wednesday, she spoke about her life in that home with more than a dozen other women who  listened and nodded in quiet agreement when Crosby mentioned struggles that mirrored their own. It was mandatory support group meeting night and the faces staring back at Crosby from across the room represented different ages and races.

There was a young mother with her small baby, a gray-haired woman with a grandmotherly persona and a 20-year-old spitfire of a woman seated on the floor in the same fashion that a happy young child would.

“It’s like the home I never had,” said Toni Metelsky.

They are all comfortable in this environment. In that room, the past — drug abuse, arrest records, homelessness and pain — have no power.

“The Y is here to empower women,” case manager Kristi Miller says as she wraps up a talk on human trafficking. “It says it right on the sign outside the door and that’s what we do here every single day.”

A history of healing

Executive Director Jeanine Donaldson said the YWCA is the kind of place people don’t know about unless they need it.

“If you have a girl and want her to take dance classes, you know where we are and how to find us,” she said. “If you need a place to stay or are drug addicted, you know how to find us. We have always been here and always been fighting to empower women.”

Donaldson, who took over the helm of the organization more than 35 years ago, is often the only face people associate with when they think of the YWCA. But in the past 100 years, scores of women have come through its doors and have left with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s for that reason she never takes full credit for getting the group to its 100th anniversary, which will be celebrated throughout this year with myriad public and social events.

“We have always seen ourselves as a sort of community center,” she said. “I think a good question we can ask ourselves right now is, what city would Elyria be if we were not here? I like to think we contributed to the moral fiber of the community by helping young women become mothers, raise strong daughters and be productive members of their community.”

To understand how the YWCA came to reach its centennial, it’s best to look at how it was founded.

In 1913, 10 teachers at Elyria High School thought the city needed a YWCA. They rallied 100 women behind the cause and in just a few days raised $25,000 to purchase the West Avenue home and the barn that once sat behind it.

To put that in perspective, $25,000 in 1913 would equate to nearly $580,000 in today’s dollars.

It was an incredible feat for the women. The YWCA was just picking up steam nationally and was rooted in some very serious issues for that time in history — race equality and women’s rights.

“Oh, it was such a different time back then, but it was very important to my mother because she believed in inclusiveness for everyone,” said Jane Coven, a still-active member of the YWCA whose mother’s name was listed on the original charter for the group. “She talked about it a lot and went door-to-door getting memberships.”

Coven, who turns 91 on Tuesday, said her mother, Mayme Davies, would often bring her to the organization and instilled in her early the importance of standing up for noble causes.

“It was a very active organization for women,” Coven said. “It was a place to go to have fellowship with other women. A lot of the social activities for both young people and women were done through the YWCA.”

In the early days of the group, a number of different clubs started up within the YWCA including the Intercultural Club of both black and white women, the Cosmopolitan Club, Metropolitan Club and JAO — Just Among Others.

It was not just a place for stay-at-home wives and mothers to go. Activism was strong in the YWCA for decades.

Coven, who received a degree in geology from University of New Mexico but ended up being a librarian because women were not seen as science teacher material in the 1950s, said the YWCA often pushed the limit when it came to race relations.

“We did it at a time when, frankly, a lot of people were very much against it, but when I was on the board in the 1950s, black people could not go into the restaurants in town and had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater,” she said. “That was not something we believed in, and I remember when me and the other board members went up to the Elyria school board meeting to ask that a black teacher be employed. We walked up from the YWCA to the school board meeting, and they wouldn’t recognize us.”

To satisfy her need to teach science, Coven stood in front of young students at the YWCA — teaching a class on minerals to young girls.

“We learned a lot there, and in that respect, nothing has really changed with the YWCA,” she said. “We’re still going, serving the community.”

Extraordinary women

If you visit the YWCA, you drive down Holly Lane and walk into a building named Holly Hall.

It’s not a coincidence.

From 1935 to 1948, Ona A. Holly, the then-executive secretary, the term given at the time to the organization’s director, was a force, Donaldson said.

A missionary taught by the well-known Moody Bible Institute, Holly chose Elyria as her mission site.

She brought the YWCA back from the brink after the Great Depression and war-torn years. It was a period of the organization’s greatest membership spike.

Organizational clubs proliferated during her tenure, including the Employed Young Women’s League, which was named Holly League after the leader’s passing in 1948.

“But she was so much more and used her strong Christian values to usher Elyria forward,” Donaldson said. “I will never forget the story of how Ms. Holly invited Benjamin Mays to speak. She went to a hotel in downtown Elyria to make his arrangements, but when the hotel didn’t oblige, Ms. Holly just took him back to her home.”

Mays was the former president of Morehouse College and a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 1950s and again in the mid-1960s, Helen Warren Mulholland, a social worker and Quaker with strong views on race relations, also was a very important director.

From work on women’s suffrage to raising the awareness of battered women, Donaldson said Mulholland advocated for levies and was on the county’s welfare board.

“There were a few directors in the YWCA’s history, but those two were the ones who were most instrumental in getting us here today,” she said.

Strong women have always walked the halls of the YWCA. Clubs brought in speakers, groups used Holly Hall to meet, and it seemed as if there was always a dynamic female voice in the building — attorney Laurice Koury, Elyria’s first woman mayor Marguerite “Peg” Bowman and former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, just to name a few.

Serving today

Old black-and-white photos of the group paint a good picture of what the YWCA once was — dress-clad ladies learning to work on a car, black women in gorgeous dresses gathering for club meetings and young girls meeting for a Thursday dance class.

Today, there are still dance classes — Donaldson said the YWCA’s dance program is arguably one of the best in the county. The YWCA is still fighting for equality, which is evident in the slew of speakers it lines up for its quarterly Community Anti-Hate Taskforce meetings.

The old home on the corner is still a place where weary women came to rebuild their spirit, rejuvenate their minds and fortify plans for the future.

“Ironically, as soon as I started working here, I learned my grandmother and her best friend stayed in this house when they were young, unmarried women looking for jobs,” case worker Miller said. “It really reminded me that we are doing nothing new here.”

But the only differences a century can make are best summed up by the advanced causes the YWCA associates itself with.

“Sadly enough, when it comes to women, a lot of the same issues that got us started are still relevant today,” Donaldson said. “Our role is still one of advocacy, for racial equality, women’s empowerment and a just society. We believe if you take care of those two things, you will have a just society.”

Crosby and Metelsky said they believe they have a place in such a society and hope their past is not used to dictate their future.

Metelsky does not mince words when she talks about her life. She is the child of a father who has always been in and out of prison and a mother who regularly used drugs. She was sexually abused as a child and later raped as a teenager.

She started popping pills — Ecstasy and then Opana when she was 16. She’s the mother to a 2-year-old boy she does not have custody of and she’s awaiting sentencing on several felony charges.

“I used until October 2012 when I walked into jail and decided to turn myself in,” she said. “I was tired of waking up every day, wanting drugs and not being able to see my son. That was the day I decided it was time for a change.”

While in jail, Metelsky put in an application to join the YWCA’s program and was admitted on Jan. 18. She is currently the youngest person in the house. Most of the other women are old enough to be her mother.

“In not even a month, I’ve accomplished more here than I could ever do on my own,” she said. “It’s strange to say, but I like the discipline and the rules. I never had them before. It’s so emotionally overwhelming being sober, but it feels really great.”

Metelsky said her short term goal are simple — get a job, finish high school and be a mother to her son.

“That’s the real world, and I got to deal with it,” she said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.