When a small group of women banded together to form the first Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in London in 1855, they were responding to the needs of young women in the Industrial Age.

From providing safe housing to skills development, life guidance, and the fellowship of other women, the YWCA provides a space for women to thrive and find community.

In the decades following — from expanding to Queensland in 1888 and establishing a chapter in Toowoomba in 1932 to now — not much has changed.

“Interestingly, much of our work today responds to exactly the same needs,” said Kate Tully, outgoing YWCA Queensland CEO. “We’re proud to be part of a global movement of women that impacts the lives of literally millions of people around the world.”

The organisation sprung up in Toowoomba during the Great Depression, wanting to help alleviate the burdens of hard work and financial worry. “One of its early activities was to buy a caravan christened ‘Martha,’ taken into the Lockyer Valley once a week,” said Kate.

“For the many women and girls working on farms there, Martha represented a precious bit of respite: fellowship, recreation, learning and good fun.”

Ten years after first opening its doors, the YWCA finally succeeded in acquiring a new place to call its own: Largo, a gorgeous home built by Toowoomba Mayor Alexander Mayes around 1902. Still owned by the YWCA, Largo has a long list of past lives, including as Gowrie House, a boarding house for young woman students.

“We still have women knocking on the door from time to time to revisit and to share their stories from their time here,” said Kate. This sense of community and inclusivity is exactly what Kate and her successor, former YWCA Queensland General Manager Ailsa Leacy, hope to encourage. “We describe our purpose as the empowerment of Queensland women and girls to ‘find their possible’,” said Kate. “Our three ‘cornerstones of empowerment’ are safety and wellbeing, economic participation, and women’s leadership.

YWCA Queensland has built on its historical legacy to now deliver essential community services and programs in an evidence-based, secular context. The organisation runs a variety of programs aiming to fulfil these initiatives.

In addition to offering safe and affordable community housing to more than 100 people in the area, YWCA Queensland’s Y Hand Up program delivers transition and outreach support to women escaping violent homes. The online Healthy Relationships was created in partnership with TAFE Queensland to help foster respectful, non-violent relationships for school students, university students and employees.

Other programs include Y Ability, which focuses on women with disabilities, REAP Food Rescue, which takes leftover food from supermarkets and bakeries to distribute to people in need, Love My Way, a school based program, and YWCA Encore, a breast cancer recovery program.

Not ones to take success as an excuse to rest, Kate and Ailsa are focused on expansion, currently engaging in an exciting project with other YWCAs to establish a new national entity to enhance reach and impact while continuing to embrace the local community.

“YWCA has always been able to draw on the community to supports its work,” said Kate. “Our experience tells us that women well and truly want — even need — to meet up face-to-face sometimes.”