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Photograph by: Larry Merz

Younger members, a new executive director, more hands-on programs — changes are propelling the Darien/Norwalk YWCA in a new direction.

In this world of spin, the YWCA of Darien/Norwalk is the real deal, a catalyst for the kind of camaraderie that makes larger goals possible. The strategy is deceptively simple: Let social programs for the local membership raise funds to support more far-reaching good works.

While potluck suppers, wine-and-cheese parties, gourmet clubs, playgroups and Lego camp might seem like a somewhat lightweight agenda, the YWCA’s social agenda attracts the new generation of young people in town, generating the volunteers and the dollars necessary to run community programs that fulfill its dual mission: to empower women and eliminate racism. Friendships, skillfully encouraged, breed tremendous energy.

“Never underestimate the value of volunteer woman-hours,” says outgoing Executive Director Rita Shaughnessy, who is retiring this month at age sixty-one. She passes the baton to a noticeably younger board of directors; seven of the eleven women are in their early to mid-thirties. “Our paid staff consists of an executive director, a program director, a secretary and a receptionist.” That frees up most of the money raised to go straight to programs that address a variety of women’s issues within the communities of Darien and Norwalk. Board members aside, more than 100 women volunteer every year to fill “take-charge” positions running a long list of activities and planning the major fundraisers. Still other volunteers sign up to do whatever is required.

The Darien branch of the oldest and largest multicultural women’s movement in the world is fueled by female power. Stepping inside the venerable white colonial on Old Kings Highway North feels like coming home. In every detail the message communicated is “Welcome!” Its subtext, however, is change.

At a series of recent leadership strategy sessions, discussion revolved around ways to bring the YW effectively into the twenty-first century, combining the best of the old with new ideas. “A redesign of the website is already in progress, as are plans for updating computer technology to meet the standards of the YW’s thirty-something new members,” says board president Kristin Calve. E-vites and text messaging may be joining e-mail as the preferred communications tools. There might even be a Facebook Welcome Page in the works. “Thousands of organizations,” Kristin says, “are using Facebook because it’s a great way to connect their membership.”

The various community assistance programs are also being reviewed, as are suggestions for more dialogue within the community with regard to race relations. “We’ve been approached by the Urban League of Southern Connecticut about collaborating with them and with the Community Fund of Darien on a presentation about issues like white privilege and race versus class,” Kristin says. “But I want to go beyond us just being talked at.” One goal is to encourage YW members to become directly involved in Norwalk and Stamford programs on a person-to-person basis. “I see the future as pretty much a blank slate on which we can be proactive and innovative,” she says. “We’re going to identify the best new ideas and run with them.”

While members range from single or divorced to married or married-with-children, the YW’s family-inclusive policies make joining “a no-brainer” for young mothers. “Some are stay-at-home moms,” Rita says, “and others have active professional careers.”

Over the past six or seven years, reflecting what has been perceived as a younger town demographic (the most recent census was in 2000), most YW newcomers are parents of preschoolers and infants. “These are bright women, very well educated, many of them coming from really high-powered careers. Their generation brings the kind of professional experience which will benefit the YW as it moves into the twenty-first century,” Rita says. “I am very excited about the leadership that we now have in place. It’s one reason I decided the time was right for me to retire.”

On a typical weekday morning, animated conversation and laughter set the stage for scheduled activities; young moms are everywhere. Some arrive with their children for Toddler Time. Others are taking a much-needed break from mothering to enjoy a ballet-stretch class or attend a planning session for an upcoming fundraiser. As the board of directors’ president, Kristin stays in direct touch with as many members as possible. At age thirty-five, this mother of a four-year-old, a toddler and a baby daughter looks remarkably unfrazzled.

“It’s our three dogs that will put me over the top,” Kristin jokes. When she moved to town four years ago, even though her husband Joe was born and raised here and his parents are still active in the community, she needed to establish her own circle of friends. “Everyone said to join the YW’s Newcomers Club,” she says. “I checked it out and signed up immediately.”

The next year, in her first board position, as recording secretary, she saw that her input was valued and that further involvement could be an opportunity not just to socialize but to use professional skills developed during a ten-year career in media. “I saw I could be creative,” she says. “I did not have to do things the way my predecessors had done them.”

Incoming Newcomers Club president Kerrie Langeveld, age thirty-two, who moved to Darien five years ago from Manhattan, was manager of an operations group at Goldman Sachs. She stopped working after she had her first child, who is now three years old. “New York to Darien is pretty much the typical migration,” she says. “After the birth of my daughter, I got that YWCA letter in the mail and the timing was just right.”

She began by helping with the spring fundraiser, which supports the YWCA’s community service programs (the 2008 event was the Champagne Gala). “I’ve done this event for the past three years and also helped with other activities,” she says. “Then I was asked to head up the Newcomers Club.”

Of the YWCA’s 694 active members, 171 who joined within the last three years are active in the Newcomers Club, which offers a variety of social options for members and their children. “It can be daunting not to know anybody,” Kerrie says. “I remember feeling so nervous and uncomfortable at first; I like the idea of helping other women get over that hump, and I am full of good ideas.” If some of those ideas are slightly out-of-the-box, it won’t be a problem — this YW welcomes creative thinkers.

To some extent, attracting the necessary leaders is a matter of hitting the right woman with the right job at the right time. “If twenty women show up at a presentation related to our New Directions program,” Kerrie says, “and only five choose to become involved, that’s an excellent result because those will be five extremely motivated women.”

Kristin points out that one of the challenges facing the YWCA right now is getting qualified people on the board of directors and elsewhere. In the past, people were moved up largely based on their contributions related to managing social functions. “But in today’s world,” she says, “running this kind of organization is much more complex; professional skills are absolutely necessary.”

For example, Yakut Akman, age fifty, born and raised in Turkey, is currently finance chairman on the board of directors. An executive at Citicorp, she was invited by Rita Shaughnessy to accept an available position three years ago. “My children were in college,” she says. “It was time for me to give back to the community.”
Regarding the YW’s investment portfolio, she felt things were being handled in an “excessively ladylike” manner. “There were plenty of smart women in prior generations,” she says, “but they didn’t have the necessary financial background.” She describes an initial meeting with the YW’s male investment advisor as “a rude awakening” for the gentleman in charge. “He was talking with a woman who understood business,” she says. “I brought up questions which challenged the existing portfolio.” The changes made have resulted in much better returns on the monies invested.

Yakut describes her involvement with the YWCA as being particularly rewarding given the fact that she is a Muslim in a town where most residents are white and Protestant. “I’ve met some great people here,” she says, “but coming to Darien from London was a huge culture shock.”

Cath Highton, age forty-four, a native of England and cochairman of the YW’s International Club, can relate. “This town can feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the world,” she says. Still, Cath has been impressed by how willing residents are to get involved in matters that have been demonstrated to be important. “People’s minds are open,” she says, “but we need to get the word out; we have to make sure they get it on their to-do list.”

As for working with the YW’s new generation of thirty- somethings, Cath appreciates the technological options they’ve brought with them. “Sign-up sheets, for example, have now been replaced almost 100 percent by e-mail,” she says, “which is much more efficient.” Both Cath and Yakut consider the mix of age groups to be a definite plus. “Each decade has different perspectives,” Cath says. “There’s so much we can learn from each other.”

Stay-at-home mom Alison Glasband, age thirty, is quick to agree. “I just joined this past January and have found the variety of ages to be very stimulating,” she says. “At events we are all connected because we share the same goals. Regardless of age, there are a lot of very cool women involved in the YW.”

Of course it helps that Alison’s demographic — young moms who chose to give up substantial careers in order to raise a family — is so well represented. “It’s difficult to suddenly be staying at home interacting only with a fourteen-month-old baby,” she says, “when you were used to being out in the business world.” Rather than remaining isolated, Alison has met other moms at the YW who made similar decisions. “We speak the same language,” she says.

Alison looks forward to using skills developed during her career in human resources by becoming involved with the YW’s community service programs. “For one thing, I know I have to focus on something other than babies’ bodily functions,” she says ruefully. “And I like the idea of helping other women. My friends and I all want lives that include something additional to mothering.”

Jocelyn Graseck, age thirty-two and mother of a twenty-month-old and a newborn baby, agrees. Two years ago she gave up her job as a marketing director at MTV Network, electing instead to raise a family. “That’s the right choice for me,” she says, pointing out that women of her generation were given a much larger sense of possibility than their mothers were. “My mom was told she could be either a teacher, a nurse or secretary.”

Jocelyn notes a similarity in her decision to stay at home to build the same kind of family her mom did. “My mom joined the YW thirty years ago when I was a baby; the women she met became lifetime friends,” she says. “I always wanted a life like hers, which is why I came back to Darien. The challenge is to make that life fit the person I’ve become.”
This year Jocelyn will be organizing the wine-and-cheese gatherings with two of her friends. “We’re going to have so much fun,” she says. “I think it’s awesome to pick up the phone and invite somebody to a party just the way somebody once invited me.” The difference between volunteering and working at a job, she notes, is the freedom to choose exactly how much she wants to do.

“Right now, in a weird way,” she says, “the YW is helping me out. I don’t know what I would do on Thursdays without my son’s playgroup, where he is so happy and all the other moms have become my close friends. Later on, when he’s a bit older, I see myself getting involved in a much larger way. I want to help others the way I am being helped.”
Meanwhile, a search committee is interviewing candidates for the YW’s new executive director. Rita Shaughnessy looks forward to offering support during the transition. Her advice to her successor? “Get to know the leadership of other nonprofits in town and in the area,” she says. “Local directors are a real resource. We are each other’s best sounding boards because we deal with many of the same concerns.”

Effective September 30 Rita will begin to fulfill a promise she made to her husband to help administratively with his rapidly growing psychology practice. “Actually, I plan to be an active volunteer, both for the YW and elsewhere,” she says. “We moved to Stratford two years ago, but I never really had a chance to take a good look around. I like the idea of being a volunteer. Hey, I’ve reaped the benefits; now it’s time to return the favor.”