An interview with a neighbor: Sharmen May Gowens

Neighborhood love from YWCA's Interim CEO Sharmen May Gowens

Sharmen May Gowens is the interim CEO of the YWCA of Greater Atlanta, an organization dedicated to empowering women and advocating for racial justice. The Atlanta chapter of the worldwide organization was organized in 1902 by a group of women at Spelman College and has been headquartered in Virginia-Highland since 1988. The site is also home to the YWCA's Early Learning Academy, an affordable child care program for 160 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.

We have our Early Learning Academy in Virginia-Highland and our administrative offices are located here. I love its convenience to everywhere. I can get in my car and be almost anywhere within 20 minutes. Restaurants are within walking distance from the YWCA's building. There's also a courtesy among the retailers in the community who offer business-to-business discounts, and those are great niceties about the community.

Our Early Learning Academy truly embraces diversity. The children are from all walks of life, and it just reflects the community that we live in. Many are from the neighborhood. Some parents don't even drive — they bring their strollers and pick up their babies. The fire department will come give demonstrations. It's close to the Martin Luther King Center — we can take field trips.

I think the community enjoys having us here. In fact, one member of the Building Owners and Managers Association lives in this neighborhood and chose us as the project for the group. We're in an old church built in 1924, but the building needed some refreshing. BOMA came in last October and did about $120,000 worth of work on the building, from new carpet to painting, to landscaping, to checking the elevators, to repairing some of the light fixtures that we had. So that was great.

I feel like even our public servants are very responsive to us. Cars were parking right in front of our building, and coming out of the driveway the vision was completely blocked. It was dangerous. You had to be very cautious. And we reached out to one of our parents who is also on the police force. We stopped him and said, "You know what, when we're bringing our babies out, we want those parents to be able to ease into that traffic carefully and safely." And sure enough, you can no longer park in front of our building anymore. So that's great responsiveness, and great involvement in the community.

Since I've been on, the board has joined forces with me, and we're looking at what we need to do to rebuild our house and to keep it strong. We came up with an overview of really being the organization for changing the lives of women and children, advocating for racial justice through collaborative programs and partnerships. And we're doing that throughout all of our programs.

We have our Women in Transition program at the Cascade House. It is in another area of town, but we house some 25 people at a time. It's a kind of temporary transitional housing where they stay from three to six months, get them back on their feet.

We have our Teen Girls in Technology program that reaches middle-school girls and teaches them about science, technology, and math. We're in seven schools now, with just under 200 girls in that program. We had our first graduating class in 2012, and 43 girls graduated from high school and 41 of the 43 went on to college. Most of these girls were the first generation in their family to go college, so it was a great, great success.

We provide a place for their children to come every day that's convenient to them. It's an area that feels safe. Any time you look out on the street, there are people walking or running. It seems to be a quiet, vibrant — that's almost an oxymoron — but a safe haven in a very vibrant area. There's always somebody moving, walking their dog, walking with their strollers, or driving. It's an area where people feel good about being a part of the community. We're glad to be here.

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