Key to my room: the women of the YWCA
It's that easy hour between the end of another workday and the promise of the evening.
In the lobby of the Downtown Knoxville YWCA, a woman comes down from her room to play the piano. Other women move in and out of the building, some stop to chat with the staff at the front desk, get their mail. Others relax on the couches, listening to the music and talking with friends.
Beyond the front desk, the hallways are adorned with hand-painted quotes of encouragement: “ ‘Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.’–Helen Keller” and “ ‘You have nothing to prove to anybody.’–Maya Angelou.” Perhaps less noticeable are the small pieces of paper on the walls and doors bearing single potent words like “Paradise,” “Exceptional,” and “Power.”
For the women who call the YWCA their home, these words, and this building, provide refuge from life's struggles. Some are here to escape the violence that has so far defined their experiences. For others, a room at the YWCA simply represents a chance to start from scratch and build a life in which they can be productive and happy.
Since 1925, the YWCA has attempted to reach out to women, offer them a place to stay, and give them opportunities to them make their way in the world. However, the emergence of domestic violence as a social concern during the 1970s inspired YWCAs across the country to refocus their missions to include women attempting to escape abusive relationships. Other services followed, including transitional housing programs designed to help women deal with a myriad of challenges from addiction to homelessness.
Women are allowed to stay at the YWCA for two years, during which time they are required to pay rent ($55 per week), attend mandatory meetings, and learn how to live on a budget. There are counseling sessions and yoga classes. They can get a GED. They can learn how to use a computer to find a job and how to conduct themselves in an interview.
There are 58 rooms at the YWCA and demand for them is perpetual; at one point in 2011, the waiting list for a room contained 648 names.
For many of the women fortunate enough to find a place at the YWCA, there is no more meaningful moment than when they are handed the key to their room. The chance to sleep in a warm, safe environment free from the dangers of the world can be overpowering. But the key represents more than safety. It is a symbol of responsibility and inner strength, of independence and personal growth.
In "A Key to My Room; the Women of the YWCA," six different women take us on an intimate journey from the fear and heartbreak that accompanied them as they passed through the YWCA's doors to the redemption and rebirth that accompanied them when they left. Producer Leslie Snow spent many emotional hours interviewing them as they relived their worst moments and their greatest victories.
This story is not about a building. It's not about the words you'll find taped along the hallways. And even though they hold great symbolic significance, it's not even about the keys that open the rooms. It's about the struggle to overcome adversity that few of us can even imagine. It's about women finding the power within themselves to survive and move on.