The Young Women’s Christian Association traces its roots back to Victorian Era England, where two separate organizations, Emma Robart’s Prayer Union and Mary Jane Kinnaird’s General Female Training Institute, were chartered in 1855. As the industrial revolution brought sweeping changes to established ideology of women’s place in the home, these two initiatives shared a concern for the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of women and girls everywhere. Within a few years, they united under the YWCA name.
At the same moment, across the Atlantic, increasing numbers of American women were leaving home and moving to the city to pursue work in factories, laundries and other industries. The first Associations in the United States focused on providing clean, safe, affordable housing to these displaced women, as well as traveler’s aid, meals, professional training, employment bureaus and social outlets. From its infancy, the YWCA movement emphasized inclusion of women from all ages, races, nationalities, backgrounds and interests, a tenet that remains central to the YWCA’s work today.
The YWCA of Great Falls was organized in 1911 by a panel of 25 women from local churches. Originally located at 215 3rd Street N, the YWCA at Valeria Hall offered safe, clean housing, a cafeteria, laundry facilities, an employment bureau, a directory of rooming houses, traveler’s aid, an educational department, and club rooms for high school girls.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, the YWCA of Great Falls evolved to meet the needs of the community as the United States experienced a period of depression, and then war. The Association moved to a new location at 317 1st Avenue N, where it maintained a dormitory, rented space to other community organizations, and hosted committees to study the unique problems confronting young women in industry and business. As World War II intensified, the YWCA turned its attentions to supporting the wives of soldiers who had been sent to war.
In 1953, after a three-year fundraising campaign, the cornerstone was laid on a new building at 220 2nd Street N, a building that the YWCA continues to occupy today. The building would contain ample classroom space, and the first classes offered to the community in the new location included copper and leather tooling, bowling, social skills, Scandinavian painting, Bible study, knitting, and bridge.
During this time, the Board of the YWCA of Great Falls voted to open a gently-used clothing thrift store, to be called “Nearly New.” The project’s original vision – to provide good quality clothing to the community at a reasonable price – continues to guide the staff and volunteers who still operate the store, which is now called “Y’s Buys.” Greatly expanded and diversified from Nearly New’s modest beginnings, Y’s Buys fills its racks entirely from community donations of new and gently-used men’s, women’s and children’s clothing. The YWCA also provides vouchers for community members in the greatest need, allowing individuals from local organizations such as Mercy Home, Haven of Hope, Transition Center and Job Service to shop for free.
In 1977, the YWCA of Great Falls entered into an affiliation with the Mercy Home, the area’s only shelter for battered women and children, in recognition of their dual commitment to ending violence against women and families. The YWCA and the Mercy Home continue to work together to break the cycle of violence in our community, raise awareness, provide free counseling and support groups to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, maintain a 24-hour crisis line, and empower victims of violence to regain control of their lives. The Mercy Home remains Cascade County’s only shelter for women and children victims of domestic violence, providing a safe, secure and supportive environment in a confidential home setting within the county.
Today, the YWCA continues to work towards eliminating racism and empowering women through its many programs and services, which are in constant evolution to respond to the needs of our community. In 2013, the YWCA of Great Falls proudly added Counseling Services to their services offered for the community. Most recently, the YWCA also added Case Management Services to their programs and offerings. The YWCA is always evolving and adding new programs to better in aiding families and their needs.
Download a copy of the full History of the YWCA here