When Cherie Reeves Sperr first reached out to Comcast, all she wanted was to fill seats at a table. The community engagement director for the Olympia, Wash. YWCA was planning a benefit event to support the YWCA’s programs, and she was hoping Comcast would assist by purchasing tickets for a fund-raising dinner.
Instead, Cherie and the Olympia YWCA got so much more.
"When Walter called to pass on the sponsorship, it was one of the nicest ‘no’s’ I’ve ever received," Cherie recalls of her first phone call with Walter Neary, public relations director for Comcast Cable’s Puyallup region. "He very graciously declined but wanted to know more about our programs."
Unbeknownst to Cherie, Walter had been looking for some time for an Olympia nonprofit to partner with that focused on young people. "Olympia is known for its arts scene, which draws a lot of kids and runaways," Walter says. "I’ve always been haunted by these images of young people hanging out in downtown Olympia with nothing to do."
Cherie’s call piqued Walter’s curiosity, and he set up a meeting with her and YWCA Executive Director Hillary Soens. Over coffee, Walter learned about the YWCA’s Girls Without Limits! program, which promotes self-confidence, skill-building, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education among girls ages 10 through 14.
"As soon as I heard the word ‘STEM,’ I knew we were on to something," Walter remembers. "As a media and technology company, supporting STEM just makes sense. Not only is educating the next-generation of engineers crucial to our business, but it’s also an opportunity for us to leverage our resources and do some good in a space we understand."
That summer, Comcast provided $2,500 for Girls Without Limits!, helping to provide 36 girls with a two-week STEM-focused camp experience. With Comcast support, the girls learned about video production, and wrote, directed, and starred in a series of shorts about the importance of STEM education for girls.
After the summer program ended, Walter met with Hillary and Cherie to see what they could partner on next. "We had just launched a workforce readiness program that had real potential," Hillary says. "But we needed a partner that could help us bring the program into the digital age."
The Economic Empowerment Program (EEP) grew out of a need Hillary noticed at The Other Bank, a hygiene bank at the YWCA that provides items not covered by food stamps or offered at food pantries, like shampoo, laundry detergent, and toilet paper.
"The same women were coming back week after week," Hillary recalls. "Some of them were employed, but they were locked into low wage jobs that didn’t offer opportunities for advancement. Many more women weren’t employed at all." In Thurston County, where the Olympia YWCA is located, women with children are the lowest wage earners, and nearly a quarter of them live in poverty.
The goal of EEP was to provide these women with meaningful job training to break the cycle of poverty; but without funding, the program was missing the technology training crucial to today’s workforce.
Walter connected Hillary with Diem Ly, external affairs manager for Comcast in Lynnwood, Wash. After seeing the need at the YWCA firsthand, Diem encouraged Hillary to apply for a grant from the Comcast Foundation. "When I first visited the YWCA, they had four computers," Diem says. "Can you imagine a dozen women trying to learn QuickBooks over each others’ shoulders?"
Diem worked closely with Hillary to figure out what the YWCA needed to bring EEP into the 21st century, from computer hardware like laptops, headsets, and flash drives, to software that included QuickBooks, PowerPoint, and Excel. "One of the things that makes EEP so special is the on-the-job training component," Diem says. "Program participants give back to the YWCA by running The Other Bank as a business – they do everything from tracking inventory to creating purchase orders and invoices – so it was critical for them to have QuickBooks training."
In December 2014, Walter and Diem joined Cherie and Hillary to cut the ribbon on the YWCA’s new Comcast Learning Lab. A $10,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation enabled YWCA to provide the comprehensive, digital learning experience they had envisioned for EEP. "The Comcast Learning Lab is a real investment in the YWCA and the lives of these women," Hillary says. "Some of them have never had anyone invest in them before, and they were really touched that someone saw their potential."
The Olympia YWCA kicked off its third EEP cycle in July, and the program has achieved a 50 percent job placement rate for graduates so far. One of EEP’s success stories is Tara, who had to start her life over after leaving an abusive marriage. "Instead of feeling empowered after my divorce, I felt powerless," she says. "Even though I was finally free of a bad situation, I didn’t have the skills to support myself financially." All that changed when Tara enrolled in EEP. "I’m no longer intimidated by a computer," says the 55-year-old who is now proficient in QuickBooks. "Having computer skills gives me self-worth, and that’s a new feeling for me." Not only does Tara have new skills and a renewed sense of self-worth, she’s now on her way to a more financially stable future, having accepted a job offer from an Olympia company in July.
Of the program’s success, Cherie says, "Who knew a ‘no’ could translate into something so much bigger?"