Worcester Warriors is an occasional series. “Worcester is a great community, not because of its buildings but because of its people. From time to time, I will feature some of the people who work to make our community a better place to live. If you would like to recommend an individual or group to highlight, please contact me at Mariano@worcester.ma.” — Ray Mariano
If she stands on her toes, she is probably 4 feet, 10 inches tall – maybe. For most of her life, she struggled to weigh in at 100 pounds. But when it comes to helping women and girls who are struggling, there is no one bigger or stronger.
Linda Cavaioli was born in Leominster in 1954 into a hard-working Italian-American family. She went to the University of New Hampshire, where she got a degree in social work. She hoped to become a juvenile court probation officer. But in those days, women seldom made it into any area of law enforcement.
The chief of police in Leominster at the time gave her some advice: “Why don’t you go work at the United Way, they are always looking for volunteers.” And so she did. After a short internship, she worked for the United Way in Florida and Central Massachusetts for the next 17 years.
Today, Cavaioli is the executive director of the YWCA of Central Massachusetts. She is celebrating 25 years in that position.
“When the position opened up, I didn’t think I should apply,” Cavaioli recalled. “I didn’t think I could run a large agency. But my husband, John, had more faith in me than I had in myself.”
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The first YWCA in America opened its doors in 1858 in New York (1885 in Worcester) and today operates branches in 122 countries around the world. In Worcester the YWCA has a staff of 230 employees, many part-time. They are a 24/7 operation and carry a $6.4 million budget.
The YWCA of Central Massachusetts serves about 14,000 mostly women and girls at multiple locations throughout the area. Its main headquarters is located in downtown Worcester. The organization also operates a camp in Leicester, a child-care center in Westborough, two separate domestic violence shelters, and numerous offices in police stations, courthouses and schools around the region.
Cavaioli’s style is easy to describe: high-energy. She is passionate about her mission to help girls and women who need a helping hand. When she’s talking about her programs, it is impossible to keep up with her.
On a recent visit to the YWCA headquarters, Cavaioli showed me around the building. As we walked, she was proudly describing multiple programs and collaborations at her usual pace of 20 miles an hour above the speed limit. But when we walked into the child-care area, she changed.
Among the teachers, assistants and children in the child-care classrooms, Cavaioli became a proud parent. Herself the mother of five, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of one, it was clear to see the pride in her eyes when she talked about the infants and toddlers being cared for in her programs.
The local YWCA serves 300 children from birth through the sixth grade. It is a licensed, quality child-care provider. Every child who attends the program learns how to swim and gets structured gym time along with all the other arts and learning activities.
Its largest program, in terms of participation, involves victims of domestic violence. In the mid-1990s through 2000, the YWCA merged with Day Break and Battered Women’s Resources to continue and expand the missions of those agencies. The YWCA serves 5,000 women annually and assists other agencies in supporting another 3,000 women through various domestic violence and prevention programs.
Cavaioli said the key to the YWCA domestic violence programs is prevention and education. “We focus on building healthy relationships, establishing self-esteem, alternatives to violence and conflict resolution,” she said. “The YWCA does not just serve women in crisis; we work to break the cycle of violence that so many women were born into.”
As a part of its prevention programming, the YWCA, in partnership with Girls Inc., meets with girls in every Worcester middle school once a week for the entire school year.
Cavaioli and her team members also provide teen pregnancy programming. They offer HiSET (formerly G.E.D.) education classes, jobs programs and, if that is not enough, they find the time to operate a full health and fitness center complete with a swimming pool and gym.
Oh, and they provide dormitory-style housing for 40 women at a time at the headquarters. This transitional housing provides case managers, who help the women they serve find their way toward self-sufficiency. Unlike an emergency shelter, this housing is designed to do much more than offer someone a bed.
That is the approach of most YWCA programs. If the women need to escape domestic violence, it provides shelter, but also offers educational programs, job training and other services. If a young mother is trying to find her way, the YWCA offers child care, counseling and whatever else she might need. The approach is holistic and serves the complete needs of its clients.
Susan Mailman, president and owner of Coghlin Electrical Contractors and chairperson of the Quinsigamond Community College Board of Trustees, and herself an advocate for women and girls, sees the value in Cavaioli’s work.
“I have known Linda for 25 years. She is a leader in women’s issues across the state. We are fortunate to have her energy here in Worcester,” said Mailman.
Over time, things change. Cavaioli is determined to do whatever it takes to continue and expand the YWCA’s’ programs. Recently, her agency applied for historic tax credits for its downtown Worcester headquarters.
Built in 1960, the Salem Square building seems like a better fit for a list of the ugliest buildings in Worcester than the National Register of Historic Places. But that did not stop her. Once approved, the money raised will be used to update the facilities.
“Our building isn’t very pretty, but it is very functional,” Cavaioli said. She pointed out that security measures to assist domestic violence programming are among the planned upgrades.
But a remodeled building is only a means to an end. The work that goes on inside is what inspires Cavaioli.
She told me about a 15-year-old named Brenda who had dropped out of school. The teenager was on public assistance. Overwhelmed, the girl joined the Young Parents Program at the YWCA. But like so many participants in their programs, there was no easy path to success. Brenda dropped out of the program and became pregnant a second time.
“When she became pregnant with her second child, Brenda came back to our program with a renewed determination,” Cavaioli said.
After a great deal of hard work, the young woman completed the YWCA Young Parents Program and earned her high school equivalency certificate. She went on to graduate from a cosmetology program and is working full time as a hairstylist. No longer on public assistance, the woman recently moved into her own home. But Brenda still relies on the YWCA – one of her daughters attends the YWCA’s preschool and both participate in the YWCA’s summer camp program.
Over her 25 years at the YWCA, Linda Cavaioli and her dedicated team have helped tens of thousands of women and girls like Brenda find better, more productive lives.
Speaking of Cavaioli, I guess the old adage is true – good things do come in small packages.
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Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun.