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Building Buildings: The Women Behind the Northeast YWCA

Based on interviews in the Portland YWCA Archives

Northeast Center, c. 1980

Northeast Staff, 2001
Janice Booker, Kathy Batz,
Debra Knapper, Mani Cannon

        The remarkable program at the Northeast YWCA has remarkable women behind it. The mission of the Young Families/Familias Jovenes program is to assist young women develop parenting knowledge and skills, to improve their access to community resources, and to aid in planning their life goals. The staff and program founders share a powerful commitment to responding to the needs of young women by "asking the girls what they want" and working with them as members of the same team.

        The focus on client needs is "the most important issue" according to Mani Cannon, Hispanic case manager for Familias Jovenes. Cannon grew up in Iran and became a professional nurse. After immigrating to the United States with her husband, she pursued her nursing career, then joined the YWCA staff in 1998. In addition to her professional and language skills, "sincerity, gentleness, commitment" are the hallmarks of Cannon's success and her program has grown from three to over sixty participants in four years. Cannon's commitment to women's growth and well-being is further expressed in her community work. In 1995, she co-founded the Portland Iranian Women's Association. The association focuses on education, news, and child welfare. In addition to offering leadership to this organization, Cannon hosts a radio show on KBOO.

Cultural Enrichment Program, 1991.
Assefash Melles (left), coordinator
        Extraordinary commitment to the success of the participants is a hallmark of Young Families. "The success stories are my best memories," affirms Janice Booker, senior case manager. Booker grew up in Portland and graduated from Jefferson High School and Multnomah Junior College. She worked for the Urban League, Emmanuel Hospital, and the YWCA's Quint House before joining the Northeast staff in 1995. She helped select the case manager team of which she is so proud. In addition to setting up classes and guiding clients to local resources, Booker is a superb advocate for her clients, helping them with everything from signing up for schools to shopping at Dress for Success and driving an applicant to job interviews--and of course, celebrating their successes. "It's about being there for people who need us," she explains. "As a case manager I enjoy my teen moms. They never forget us and it makes me feel wonderful that we did some good things with them and set them on the right track." Janice Booker will often get a call from a former client about a new job or an invitation to a child's birthday celebration. She says, "It makes me feel like I'm still part of them."

        Debra Knapper says her work "comes from the heart." Since 1999, she has brought her skills as a housing advocate and her gift with poetry to her work with the Young Families Program at the Northeast YWCA. A Portland native, she learned housing advocacy at the grass roots. During the 1980s, she was active in Housing Our Families and later worked for Sisterhouse, a residence for young mothers. Knapper gained her expertise as a case manager at Sisterhouse, and her special touch with clients caught the attention of Janice Booker. As a result, when Knapper expressed interest in a position at the YWCA, Booker helped make it happen. A survivor of intense struggles with health and family, Knapper says that her work as a case manager of young mothers "let's me know that all the things in my life are not in vain." Knapper affirms, "I am but one person, but one person can help many, many people."

Delvon Barrett

        Delvon Barrett grew up in Depot, Oregon and was active in the YWCA in high school and college. After graduating, she looked to the YWCA for employment and became director of youth programming in 1969. At that time, the YWCA operated out of the Mallory Avenue Christian Church. This congregation was home to a "grand, fine group of ladies," Barrett recalled in an interview, among them Marie Smith, leading light of the former Williams Avenue YWCA, Alice Van Chandler, Gertrude Crowe, Jill White, Alice Butler and her niece Rose Butler, and Emmie Simon Marks. During the 1970s, YWCA work blossomed under Barrett's leadership. Barrett recalls the YWCA's outreach work to women who lived in the nearby Dekum Court housing project: "We worked a lot with people who needed a little boost and some help to make their life a little more interesting," she explained, "and make their families enjoy life, too." The YWCA offered life skills, support, and fellowship--everything from babysitting to home tips. Barrett is especially proud of a painting class whose members produced beautiful artwork that was displayed in a U.S. Bank lobby and now hangs permanently in Mallory Church. Of the special ties among women in the program--who are still friends to this day--she notes: "I think there was a certain spirituality about everything we did and I think mainly this would be the basis for living out the YWCA purpose. I really am not exaggerating because we had some really fine spirit."

        The Northeast YWCA is currently directed by Kathy Batz, whose organizing, mediating, and technology skills have been a great asset to every department she has touched. Born in rural Indiana and raised Catholic, Batz came to Portland in 1988 and took a job at the downtown YWCA in 1993. Her first position was as part-time assistant to the development director. She worked on the first computer database for the organization and helped wire the downtown building for technology. Batz soon became full-time staff as volunteer coordinator, and later front desk manager. After organizing a workers' council, the employees union was restarted, whose success rested on the trust rebuilt between professional and support staffs which Batz facilitated. She joined the Northeast staff in 1999 and worked hard to support the growth and development of the program.

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