Over the last 15 years, Elisabeth Zimmermann has led the YWCA Niagara Region through challenging times and to incredible successes. In that time, the YW has served thousands of woman and their families with emergency shelter, transitional housing, and skills development programming to help them back on their feet. In honour of Elisabeth’s 15 years, the YW’s Community and Public Relations Coordinator, Grace Howes, sat down with Elisabeth to reflect on her experience as the Executive Director to learn what she is most excited about in the future of the YW:
Grace: Tell me a bit about your leadership journey at the YW.
Elisabeth: When I started with the YWCA in 2006, I was hired as the Director of Shelter and Housing. And then, the opportunity arose by the end of that year to apply for the interim Executive Director position. I applied and became the YWCA’s Executive Director in February of the following year. In terms of actual position, that’s what happened. And then, I learned what it means to be an executive director of an organization. It was a difficult time for the YW, at the time. We had just come through a turnaround, on the brink of bankruptcy. There had been measures put in place, but it was about solidifying those measures and ensuring the organization was sustainable and stable.
What is your favorite experience or memory as the executive director?
Oh, boy! That’s hard. There are so many. I think for me it’s a string of memories, mostly of women that I have met. Women who have stayed here and have been in our programs. It’s always amazed me, the resilience of women who has incredibly difficult lives. It has always been that touchstone for me, to remind me why this work is important. I think the other part is, just watching programs grow and being able to meet more of the needs that we’ve identified in the community.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as the executive director?
Lots of lots of lessons. I’ve learned a lot about managing, about planning, about working with the community. I’m always learning more. Not just from the perspective of managing the organization, but also in terms of the complexity of people’s lives, and learning how to live in the world of grey when it comes to programs. The world is a complex place, and I am still learning about it every day.
What has surprised you most in your experience as the executive director?
Elisabeth: I think, the unpredictability of this work. Good and bad. I think that that’s been the most surprising thing to me. You can be going in a certain direction and you think it’s gonna be okay, and then, things happen it’s not. Or, it’s better than you expected. I think the other thing that’s really surprised me in a way, going back to my favorite experience also, is the resilience of women. I am continually amazed by their resilience.
What are you most excited about moving forward at the YW?
Elisabeth: The big thing is Oakdale Avenue. The new building, it’s super exciting. And then, I think there are other possibilities and projects arising that I am excited about too. I think it’s always that new opportunity that you didn’t expect. I actually had a phone call today with a developer and it’s creating some potential opportunities. I think that’s part of the fun of it all. There are always these new opportunities and I’m always focused on knowing the gaps that we see in our community and serving women and their families. So it’s always exciting to know that there are new opportunities to support them. There are so many people in Niagara who are enthusiastic about our move and propelling us forward so that we can help more people – those supporters excite me too.
My last question is this. You’ve been an incredible leader of the YW for 15 years. Outside of work, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Elisabeth: Well first, those are very kind words. It’s been an absolute honour to be the executive director of this organization over these last 15 years. Sometimes I still pinch myself, thinking wow, people actually let me do this. (Laughs) In my spare time, I love to garden. I love to spend time with my grandchildren, children, and family as a whole. They are my top priority. It’s an absolute pleasure to have them take up a lot most of my spare time. I love the outdoors. I am very fortunate, I live in the country so I get to enjoy the outdoors a lot. I’m one of those old-fashioned people who likes also likes to knit and things like that. (Laughs)
Help us celebrate Elisabeth’s 15 amazing years of leadership, dedication, and service to the YWCA Niagara Region and the women and families we serve. Leave a message for Elisabeth in the comments below in honour of her YW anniversary.