For 90 years, the YWCA Niagara Region has been providing essential programs and service to women and their families in the Niagara Region. Through the years the YW has worn many hats and provided many different services.

To read our history booklet in full, please click here!

THE 1920s
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In 1927 Mrs. Kate Leonard, a woman of substantial wealth, dared to dream… and identified the need to address the welfare, safety and advocacy of all of this community’s women, young women and their children.

On November 22, 1927, 300 local women from various churches and women’s organizations throughout the city gathered to discuss the ‘founding of the St. Catharines YWCA’ and to elect a provisional board whose main focus would be finding a suitable building to house the YW and those that we would serve.

And so began what became an over fifty year relationship and joint venture between the local and established YMCA of St. Catharines and the newly formed YWCA.

With the support of the community and the incredible generosity of Col. R.W. Leonard (Kate Leonard’s husband), and the YMCA President Mr. David Mills who together donated $350,000, the YMCA-YWCA building was built at 56 Queen Street in St. Catharines. Though both organizations shared concerns over sharing a space, they were able to draw up a workable basis of co-operation and respect for each organization’s very different history, but common ideals.

On Saturday, January 19, 1929, Mrs. Kate Leonard officially laid the cornerstone for the new building. The official opening of the ‘Y’ building was on Monday, October 27, 1929. It was a day that went down in the history of both associations, as the general public expressed their delight in the great new structure and its potential. A special edition of the St. Catharines Standard was published in honour of the event.

THE 1930s
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Swimming-on-a-chair-300x205Within a few months the entire ‘Y’ building was being used to capacity. There were activities in both gymnasiums and better recreation programming for boys, girls, men and women. People of all ages flocked to the swimming pool, with the ‘Y’ becoming the focal point for St. Catharines’ young people. Clubs were organized to suit the varied interests of the different groups within the community. Each organization was serving the recreational, social and educational needs of the community.

THE 1940s
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During the Second World War the YWCA of St. Catharines played a significant role to the war effort. We were assigned three main tasks as ‘war jobs’ by the government; the most significant being the Rooms Registry Service. Along with hospitality and entertainment spots for groups of young service men, the YW coordinated hostess houses for the visitation of wives and relatives of the men in service.

The duties of the room registry service consisted of interviewing applicants and inspecting prospective rooms, as well as answering the calls of those willing to rent or offer their available rooms.

THE 1950s
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By the 1950s the work of the YW was very broad in its scope. Camp Wa-Sa-Ah-Bun was running strong. We offered fellowship through the Y-Teen Club for Girls, the Young Adult Co-Ed Clubs including So-Ed, the Saturday Nite Club and a Bridge Club. We also provided a counselling service to help girls with their personal problems, a Travellers Aid Service, a residence for working girls or for travelers and a reasonably priced cafeteria along with their recreational and physical activities.

In November of 1954 the YW celebrated 25 years of operation by hosting an annual membership tea with a fashion show highlighting clothing from the 1920’s era.

THE 1960s and 1970s
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During the 1960’s recreational programs such as swimming and the reintroduction of synchronized swimming classes were becoming popular again. The ‘Y’ pool, being one of the only public swimming pools around, was still a highly attractive feature. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, faced with declining participation and the increasing development of government services and private enterprise in the recreational and social services fields, each organization began to face a survival crisis. The YMCA movement in Canada began programs for women and girls, and allowed women to become members. The YWCA began to offer programs for boys and men. Naturally, the two organizations began to look at amalgamation with a decision not to merge being made in 1972.

The YWCA was the first to start this separation process in the mid-seventies, a difficult process which lasted almost five years and touched almost every aspect of the Association: organizational development, financial development, and future relationships with the YMCA.

THE 1980s
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Pen-Racquets-300x190In August of 1980, a decision was made to leave Queen Street and negotiations commenced with the YMCA for the sale of the building. The St. Catharines joint operation had survived longer than any other YW/YM by the time this decision had been made.
Housing for women in transition was identified as the number one priority and in order to deal with the financial survival mode we were facing, the YW decided to continue offering only those recreational, social and fitness programs which attracted high participation levels and were profitable. Financial responsibility was an underlying priority of all actions.

As the YW began to develop action plans during the spring of 1981, two opportunities presented themselves. First, the YWCA had the opportunity to acquire a property on Court Street for a new women’s residence- a building containing 17 apartment units.

The residence opened its doors on October 3, 1981 with the goal of serving women with special housing needs. The guidelines followed were respect for ourselves and for others. In keeping with the philosophy of the YW, we aimed to provide opportunities for personal growth, to deepen concern for human needs and to act responsibly in the community.

Court-Street2-300x177That same year the YWCA Board approved the plan to acquire Pen Racquets and consequently decided to locate its administrative offices and other program space adjacent to the building.

Pen Racquets Fitness Centre faced serious difficulty through the 80s as more fitness centres opened up throughout the community and competition became an issue.

The YWCA embarked on a Capital Campaign which, along with the funds from a major Wintario Capital Grant, was to reduce the capital costs of acquiring the lease holds of Pen Racquets, thus producing a great decrease in operating expenses which in time would produce operating profits, from which new programs would be funded.

However, in February 1986, the YWCA turned Pen Racquets over to the Credit Union and issued a bankruptcy proposal to our outstanding creditors. In September 1987, the YWCA relocated to the Ridley Heights Plaza with all of our social services programs intact.

THE 1990s
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The 1990’s saw the YW focused on the social service needs of the St. Catharines community. We offered many programs such as parenting classes, child care, drop in groups, parenting support groups, babysitters training courses, Niagara Youth Training in Empowerment, sports, Go Girls Go, Clubhouse for winter and March break, and counselors in training, as well as still offering our camps.

As well, the YWCA’s Pre-Employment Program was established in the early 1990’s (which became the Women’s Resource Centre in the later 1990’s) through the funding from Human Resources Skills Development Canada. The programs function was to provide information on employment, education, health care, community resources and referrals. Later to become the ‘Job Route for Women’ program, it was the only pre-employment program in the Region that was offered exclusively to women.

THE 2000s
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The new millennium saw a time of challenges, choices and opportunities for the YW, and resulted in a stronger, more focused organization. Having long advocated for women and children, the organization returned to that focus by purchasing and restoring our current location at 183 King Street in April 2000. In July of 2001 we opened our doors as a 20-bed Emergency Shelter Crisis Housing Facility experiencing 100% occupancy most of the time.

king-st.1Expanding horizons took on a special meaning in the second half of 2004, with the effort to restore services to the City of Niagara Falls, through the acquisition of the abandoned YWCA building on Culp Street. The Niagara Falls location had been founded in 1913, and also had a very long-standing history of serving women and children, but when massive debt and organizational problems forced the residence to close, a huge gap in services was created. With no emergency shelter beds and nowhere to turn in Niagara Falls, local women and their children in need had to travel out of town or hope to find temporary accommodation.

Behind the scenes, homelessness advocates across Niagara, and the YW St. Catharines were quietly trying to get the organization up and running again. In January of 2004 we began conversations with key stakeholders in the Niagara Falls community, including the United Way and Project Share, and with their support and that of all four levels of government and other partners the YWCA Culp Street shelter was officially re-opened on June 24 and 25, 2005.

Culp-StreetIn April of 2005, we received funding from the Federal Government’s Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative (SCPI) to provide Off Site Transitional Housing in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. Having recognized the difficulty for single women or women with a child to find affordable housing with limited income, the program was created to help alleviate the rent costs for these women. These women would then receive additional support by accessing the YWCA Epworth Terrace Supportive Housing Program, the YWCA Job Route for Women Employment Services and community partnerships.

During this time the YW was still offering programs for children. In 2006, the YW began holding the Power of Being a Girl Conference in conjunction with the YWCA’s national signature event ‘Week Without Violence’. The yearly conference is geared for high school girls from all over the region and has had many different topics over the years such as safe practices, internet safety, overcoming road blocks, violence in relationships, dating safety, and positive thinking just to name a few, with a usual crowd of approximately 300 girls.

Over the next few years, the YW would begin to implement and expand on girls centred programming to address identified needs that were being brought to our attention. Having established a partnership with local youth shelters offering programming to their clients, we began to see that supporting and teaching girls the skills they need to manoeuver from adolescence into adulthood would increase their likeliness of success and help break the cycle of poverty. We began offering girls centred summer camp, teen life skills programming, a lunch school program, and in 2008 opened a Youth Transitional Housing program in our Culp Street Shelter. The program housed up to six girls between the ages of 16 and 24 years old who were in crisis and homeless. The youth were able to stay for up to one year while receiving counselling, taking part in workshops and life skills programming, and attending school.

In 2010, government funding priorities shifted and forced the closure of our long-standing women’s only employment program ‘Job Route for Women’. In re-evaluating how to maintain the clients and crucial programming the program offered, we continued on with the Skills Development component; which absorbed some of the impact of losing the employment program.

In 2011 we launched our first Family Emergency Homeless Shelter initiative. The shelter accommodates homeless families, mothers with boys older than 16 and single fathers who are raising their children and are in need of stable, affordable housing. 2011 also brought an end to the Youth Transitional Housing program. We look to the future and see a more sustainable youth program that will provide similar services and a much larger capacity.

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momson-300x240Today the YWCA Niagara Region is a recognized leader in providing housing programs for homeless women and their families in our community. We offer two Emergency Women’s Homeless Shelters, an Emergency Family Shelter, an Emergency Men’s Shelter, two On Site Transitional Housing Programs, a Supported  Transitional Housing Program and an Off Site Transitional Housing Program consisting of apartments all throughout the Niagara Region. Along with these essential housing services, the YW offers Skill Development Programming, including Women’s Addiction Recovery Meditation and Sex Trade On My Terms. Additional empowerment programs for young boys and girls are also available within the school system.

Since 2015, the YW is also running several Housing First units to be able to serve those individuals, who struggle with chronic homelessness and face multiple barriers to accessing permanent housing.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the YWCA Niagara Region, the St. Catharines Public Library has historical items available for viewing in their special collections.