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Women's History Month: Brooklyn YWCA Has Empowered Generations Of Local Women

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The YWCA is the oldest women's organization in the world, and the YWCA in Brooklyn is celebrating this year 125 years of empowering women. Borough reporter Jeanine Ramirez filed the following report.

The YWCA of Brooklyn marked its 125th anniversary with a party in its Boerum Hill building. It is a landmark building the organization almost lost about a decade ago.

"We were in foreclosure. We owed almost a million dollars in payables. We were in a very, very bad situation," says YWCA executive director Martha Kamber.

Developers looked to buy the 11-story structure and turn it into luxury housing, but it was already being used as a residence by about 200 low income women.

"The board realized that these women would be homeless. They would go to the streets or to shelters or to nursing homes or other institutions. So they were determined to find a way to save the building," Kamber says.

The solution was to create more affordable housing. The Y raised capital, took out loans, renovated the building and opened its ground floors to the community with a theater and meeting space.

"That was a wonderful way for us to save the building and really be true to our mission. And that was the most exciting thing about it," says Kamber. "If it would have been luxury condos, how could we say we say we are a social justice organization that empowers women and eliminates racism?"

Now it provides 300 single-occupancy units to women like Ann Thompson, who was displaced when her landlord sold a nearby building at a premium.

"Somebody told me about the Y and I walked over here and they gladly accepted me and I'm glad they did," Thompson says.

Another resident, Jeanne Majors, came from a homeless shelter and loves the neighborhood.

"You have some segments of the population -- upscale, some middle, some below -- and it really meshes together," Majors says.

Since 1888, the YWCA of Brooklyn has long been a champion. It built the first nursing school in the country and was the first YWCA to racially integrate its programs. It also offered one of the nation's first drop-in centers for women in crisis.

Today, it is still a safe haven for victims of all kinds of abuse, and plans to stay that way well into the next century.

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