Workers Serve Young Moms with Pride and Compassion at Duluth YWCA

“This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” says Takeesha Coon, Local 3558 steward.  For the staff at the Spirit Valley YWCA in Duluth, going in to work is about a lot more than earning a paycheck. It’s about building community, helping people and getting working families and their kids off to a healthy start. “Having a strong AFSCME presence at work makes it even better,” she adds.

The stand-alone red brick building on the city’s West side houses an Early Childhood Education Center and the Young Mother’s Supportive Housing Program, a transitional housing program that helps moms between 16 and 21 get on their feet, into the workforce and on the path to a safe, secure future for themselves and their children.

“They come here and learn independence, life skills, parenting skills, self-motivation, just basically how to be a young mom. Because when you’re young you’re still trying to learn how to take care of yourself,” says Takeesha Coon, a health and wellness case manager at the YWCA. “And we help them reach life goals, like if they want to get back into college or finish high school, if they want to get employment, get a license or anything, any kind of goals they want to reach, we help them,” her colleague Nicole Williams, a former program resident who now works at the center as a youth advocate, adds. The program provides a life-changing leg up for young moms who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness, she says.

In December, the Spirit Valley staff went above and beyond to ensure a joyful holiday season for the housing program residents. Workers set up a Christmas tree in the building’s basement community room and spent their personal time shopping for and wrapping gifts for the young moms, kids and babies who reside in the housing program. Coons and Williams cooked up a holiday feast for the residents and invited former program participants, community members and allies.

The pair spent the day whipping up huge batches of barbeque ribs, roasted chicken, homemade baked beans, potato salad, banana pudding and even sugar cookies for the kids to decorate. “I’m going to open up my own restaurant one day, and Nicole’s going to be my assistant,” Coons joked as they sliced boiled eggs into a steel tub of potatoes for the salad. “We’ve got a lot of gifts to spread around this building tonight! We’re just in the giving spirit.”

Upstairs in the Early Childhood Education Center, AFSCME members care for dozens of children ranging in age from infant to five years old.

Theresa Fox, a 22-year employee who worked at the YWCA when they organized to join AFSCME in 1999, has been a steward for Local 3558 for more than 15 years. She says her union job at the child care center has made it possible for her to get ahead. She glows with pride as she talks about her personal journey while working at the YWCA.

“First I was a toddler teacher and I had ten students, then I was the infant teacher and I had 16. I started as an aide and went to college while I was working here, then became a teacher and raised my kid – he went through the daycare here. He’s sixteen now,” she says. Her coworker April, a floating teacher, started working at the YWCA in 2006. She says she left to work at a non-union child care center for a few years, but came back to Spirit Valley in 2016 because she missed the benefits of working union. “I was excited to come back. Where I was, I loved my position, but our manager was like night and day – you never knew what you were going to get each day. It was really difficult. We were promised raises and we had to fight for our raises every year when our year came up. It was pretty bad,” she explains.

At the Spirit Valley YWCA, however, the union spirit is strong. The members make up their own bargaining unit of Local 3558, a group of Duluth-area private sector organizations and nonprofits whose employees are represented by AFSCME.

“Having my union behind me makes me feel so good,” Coons says. “Knowing I’ve got support, we all have support - it makes doing this work easier and more rewarding. It inspires me to organize more workers so we can help improve more lives.”