Leaders Prepare Frankford Ywca For Independence Taking The Y Private, They'll Serve The Public. It's Either That Or Close.

Posted: November 16, 1994

It was Independence Day in Frankford yesterday, with speeches, cheers and a declaration by the YWCA branch there that it would fight for freedom.

"Since 1942, these doors have never closed. Never," branch director Marian Wolfe said.

Wolfe and the other five administrators at her Y have been working without salaries for nearly a month, keeping programs going as the YWCA of Philadelphia, long financially troubled, founders.

About three and a half weeks ago, the Y's largest branch, at 2840 Holme Ave. in Pennypack Park, was closed. It's up for sale. That leaves two working branches - Frankford and Southwest-Belmont. The North Central branch closed two years ago. The North Central building, at 1517 W. Girard Ave., is also on the sale block.

The Germantown YWCA is not affiliated with the Philadelphia association.

The demise of the YWCA's Northeast branch in October fired up rumors that Frankford would be next.

Supporters want to cut the Frankford branch from the main office and turn it into an independent, nonprofit corporation. Backers say the breakaway organization might keep YWCA affiliation, but that is not a primary concern.

Yesterday, civic and religious leaders told a group of about 75 gathered at the Y - Arrott and Leiper Streets - that independence is possible.

"It's going to be a struggle," Councilman Dan McElhatton told them. ''Membership is what will have to do it. We must increase the membership of the Frankford Y. . . . We can't do it without your help and your getting the word out that the Frankford Y is not going to close."

Frankford needs more members to help generate income to run the operation, which will have to assume the $240,000 mortgage on the building. McElhatton said supporters also are working to identify other financing sources, including a possible city contract and help from United Way.

"I think there is a willingness to look at the Frankford branch when they become separate," said Joe Divis, a United Way spokesman, adding that technical expertise might also be available.

The YWCA of Philadelphia has a history of financial woe and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 1991. Although offering some protection, the move also forced the Y to forfeit a crucial money source: the United Way.

In February 1993, the YWCA emerged from bankruptcy with a restructuring plan that called on each branch to become a self-sustaining, subsidiary corporation of the head office. The branches had been working toward that end when the financial tide again grew overpowering.

On Oct. 4, the Philadelphia YWCA board directed the three branches to plan for independence or closure. Gillian R. Gilhool, executive director of the Y, said yesterday that the direction was in keeping with the restructuring plan.

The Southwest-Belmont branch, as well as the one in Frankford, moved to remain open. Sharon Bembery, administrator at Southwest-Belmont, said yesterday that her branch is also moving toward becoming an independent non- profit corporation.

Gilhool said her board plans to meet Monday to consider proposals by the two branches for reshaping, or severing, their association with the main office. She said it was not clear whether the latest financial crisis would kill the Philadelphia YWCA.

"We would like to be the YWCA of Philadelphia as we were for the past 124 years," Gilhool said. "It certainly would be very sad if the YWCA would cease to exist, with its 125th anniversary next year."

But McElhatton told the group in Frankford yesterday that "the corporate structure of the Philadelphia YWCA can't survive. . . . The Philadelphia YWCA's financial problems . . . have caused the Y system to disintegrate."

Ed Becker, a federal judge and a lifelong Frankford resident, assured the gathering that officials in the head office were ready to let go.

"They have given me their word," said Becker, who sits on the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "They are finished. They are out of business, and they will let Frankford go. . . . We will get our freedom, but we've got to earn our freedom."

He explained: "We've got to vastly increase our membership."

Becker is working to put together a founding board of directors, which would shape the new organization. One question raised at the gathering was whether that board should be all women, as is the board governing the Frankford YWCA.

"My recommendation would be that it be a mixed board," McElhatton said, adding that the effort to save the institution has not been single-sex. ''Believe it or not, some men in this community have made a meaningful contribution," he said, drawing laughter.

Wolfe, the branch director, said after the meeting, "I think it's very important that there is a strong female presence on the board."

The Rev. Robin Hynicka, director of Frankford Group Ministry, said the Y is the only organization in the community "with these two goals: a mission to empower women and, along with that, to eliminate racism."

"The Y is absolutely necessary in this community because it has a vision for how all God's children can be involved," Mr. Hynicka said, his voice booming above cheers from those gathered. "Let's continue to spread the word: This Y's open for business."

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