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Bellingham YWCA comes full circle 100 years after first helping women start new life

The building at North Forest and East Maple streets has been labeled substantial and its design called eclectic. Those are fitting terms for the building as well as for its owner and occupant for the past 100 years, the Bellingham YWCA.

The YWCA is using its annual leadership breakfast this year to mark the building’s centennial and to raise money for the emergency and transitional housing for women provided in the landmark structure.

”When it opened at the turn of the 20th century, it was home to young women from rural areas and overseas coming to seek employment in the city,” said Laverne Lane, executive director. “Today, our historic home is a haven for women who need a new start in life.”

Turn-of-the-century start

The first local YWCA presence was a club formed in 1899 at what is now Western Washington University. In 1906, the club hosted a state YWCA convention. That, in turn, sparked creation of a community YWCA the following year.

Early on, the YWCA gave women a place to stay, moral support, and respectable job referrals, an important service because newcomers were sometimes tricked or coerced into prostitution upon their arrival. The YWCA also enabled women to delve into civic and social activities outside the home, at a time when jobs and professions for women were limited.

The YWCA gained a permanent home when the well-to-do and civic-minded family of Charles X. and Frances Larrabee donated the land and underwrote construction of the three-and-a-half story building. Charles Larrabee died a few months later, but his wife followed through on the project and the building was dedicated on March 15, 1915.

The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by Seattle architect Carl Gould while he also designed the Larrabees’ mansion, now called Lairmont Manor.

At the time, Bellingham was one of the few YWCAs with its own building. The brick structure features a columned entryway, two and a half floors for housing, and a main floor with offices, and a ballroom with a large kitchen, tall French doors that act as windows, and a 14-foot ceiling. Maintenance, of course, is an ongoing issue.

“It’s an old building,” said Nancy Garrett, board president. “We are a slave to the boiler.”

Focus changed over time

YWCA programs have changed over the decades to reflect new needs and fluctuating budgets. The YWCA helped poor people during the Great Depression, then focused on families and teens during the boom years after World War II. Recreational activities included a swimming pool in the basement, and programs arose to address new issues, such as breast cancer awareness, rape and domestic violence, environmental protection, and training for jobs in the trades.

But as women’s rights and options grew, the YWCA faced tight budgets and layoffs, so it shifted its focus to housing women at risk. Today, the top floor provides nine spaces for emergency housing, where woman can stay for free for up to 90 days, and can pay to stay longer if necessary. The women often are leaving domestic violence behind, and need time to find jobs and establish community ties.

“This is a chance to get on their feet,” said Wendy Haggen, housing coordinator.

The second and third floors, combined, offer low-cost apartments for up to 27 women, with shared kitchens, bathrooms and laundry facilities. The women can stay for up to a year and a half while they work with community agencies, counselors and volunteers to rebuild their lives.

“We give them more time,” Garrett said. “The goal is to get people out in the community and working.”

To help the women return to school or look for jobs, the YWCA’s Back to Work Boutique provides women new clothes and accessories.

A century after the Larrabees generously paid for the substantial building, the YWCA has the space to provide the most emergency and transitional housing for women in the county.

“In a way, we’ve come full circle to our beginnings, helping women start new lives,” Lane said.

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