- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Pregnant, recovering from a meth addiction and with barely a dime to her name, Candice Early walked into the YWCA on June 10 in search of shelter, food and whatever else the agency offered.

Nearly four months later, the 32-year-old Early sits on an office couch composed, confident and employed at LifeTouch. She credits the YWCA for her transformation and cites June 10 as the day she regained control of her life.

“If you need a place to go and stay, this is the best option for you,” Early tells The Star Press (https://tspne.ws/1nXv5DL ).

Early exemplifies what the YWCA is all about. Yet, second-year executive director Nance Buchert says too few in the community view the agency on East Charles Street as a shelter.

The agency conducted surveys recently that confirmed what its board of directors and Buchert feared. The YW is perceived to be the YMCA for women, when in fact, the agency prioritizes putting a roof over the heads of homeless women and their children.

“We are absolutely a homeless women’s shelter,” Buchert says, “and we take women from all over East Central Indiana.”

The YWCA of Muncie is the only shelter from Kokomo to Indianapolis that accepts all women. Other agencies in the region only open their doors to women escaping domestic violence.

Women from all walks of life take shelter at the agency, which increased its number of beds by 20 in the past year. The YWCA opened its emergency shelter basement apartments Dec. 23, which Buchert says housed four women on Christmas Eve.

The agency now beds up to 77, and turns away far fewer women and children than in years past.

Through August of 2014, Buchert says the agency had assisted 250 women and children and turned away fewer than a dozen due to being filled to capacity. In all of 2013, the agency assisted 267 women and children and turned away about 300.

Buchert says the YWCA bolstered its residential programming in the last year, too. She hired Niki Fitzgerald as a residential director in June to increase the number of programs that focus on empowering women educationally, professionally and spiritually.

Fitzgerald revitalized the domestic violence group and formed partnerships with other local agencies for four new programs - youth reading, mother-child relationships, work, and education.

“We empower them through programming and teach them self-sustained individual living,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s a key piece so when they move out they’re not back in two months.”

Mary McCollum, 49, says the YWCA is where miracles happen.

Out of housing options after her brother and sister-in-law kicked her out of their apartment, McCollum checked into the YWCA in late April.

McCollum walked through the doors a broken spirit. She says her family verbally abused her, and six months earlier, a doctor diagnosed her with stage 4 breast cancer. Stage 4 is incurable, and McCollum says the doctor gave her six to 12 months to live.

She found comfort and support at the YWCA, but after her hair fell out, she accepted death was imminent. By July, she was skipping her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Fitzgerald sat McCollum down for a heart-to-heart conversation. Fitzgerald told McCollum she and others at the YWCA cared about her, and McCollum says that motivated her to resume treatments.

Nine days ago, McCollum learned her cancer is in remission.

“I owe the Lord upstairs and the YWCA or I don’t know where I’d be right now. I’d probably be in a grave now,” says McCollum, who wears a pink breast cancer bracelet on her right wrist.

For the first time since her own cancer diagnosis, McCollum is optimistic about her future. She is in search of employment after completing her GED and two WorkOne computer classes, and she recently signed up for a room in an apartment complex.

McCollum wakes up each morning appreciative of her opportunities and says, “If I can beat cancer, anybody can beat anything. They just need to know they can do it.”

For Tammy Smith, 44, life in the YWCA emergency shelter is unglamorous, but it beats her old stomping grounds.

Smith served five years in prison for burglarizing a residential house and missed out on the formative years for her three children, ages 10 to 14. The children moved in with their paternal grandmother and still live with her as their mother seeks to turn her life around.

“They’ve been in fantastic care with her,” says Smith, who speaks to her children daily on the phone and visits them a couple times a week.

Life only slightly improved for Smith after her release from prison. She fell in love with and moved in with a man who she says verbally and physically abused her.

She finally left him in the spring of 2013 and bounced around for about a year after their separation before checking into the YWCA emergency shelter in April. Smith stayed only six days and says her life resumed spinning out of control.

Four months later, Smith returned to the agency determined to turn her life around and felt at home as soon as she walked in the doors.

Smith is in the process of transitioning to an upstairs apartment. She says the YWCA offers her the stability and resources to become self-sufficient and ultimately reunited full time with her children.

The staff selected Smith as one of its residents to participate in an upcoming business-oriented program, Catalyst for Empowering Women, at the Horizon Convention Center.

Smith graduated from Oakland City with a business degree, obtained a technical degree from Indiana Women’s Prison and completed a few culinary courses at Ivy Tech. She dreams of someday owning a restaurant.

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Information from: The Star Press, https://www.thestarpress.com

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