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YWCA Honors Women Who Have Walked the Walk

Speaking her truth, publicly and unafraid, about her struggles with domestic abuse seemed impossible for Maria Yllescas in years past; however, today the survivor and former YWCA Glendale and Pasadena participant is willing to do what she was unable to do before — be the face to her own story.
Yllescas is just one of many women whose life has been transformed because of the impactful work being done by the YWCA, which recently held its 26th annual Heart & Excellence Awards and Persimmon Donor Circle Luncheon to celebrate women who exemplify the organization’s mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.”
About 250 community supporters gathered at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club on May 17 to recognize the three women lauded by the YWCA, including Rima Cameron, for her commitment as a Persimmon Donor Leadership Circle member; Jessica First, for her leadership as YWCA Glendale and Pasadena board president; and Denise Houlemard Jones, for her vision as the first chair of the Women’s Racial Justice Breakfast more than 20 years ago in October 2002.
“These women were chosen to be honored by our organization because they have demonstrated through their volunteerism and philanthropy, their deep commitment to YWCA’s core values,” Tara Peterson, YWCA Glendale and Pasadena’s chief executive officer, told the Glendale News-Press.
“It was important for us to honor them because they are paving the way for future generations of women in our community who will one day stand on their shoulders. It’s imperative that they are recognized because their volunteerism and philanthropy make a tremendous difference in others’ lives. Having this kind of impact on others should be celebrated,” Peterson added.
The YWCA provides resources and support to survivors of domestic violence and their children, and through its education and prevention efforts, the group empowers women, girls and families to build healthy relationships, achieve self-sufficiency and live free from violence.

Tara Peterson (right) introduces Maria Yllescas, who has benefitted from YWCA Glendale and Pasadena’s programming, to tell her story about surviving domestic abuse.

“The work YWCA does have been in many ways my life’s work,” Peterson said. “The most rewarding part for me is knowing we are approaching societal problems with a strong understanding of how these problems are interrelated. That and knowing we are changing lives and sometimes even creating positive generational change in families.”
YWCA Glendale and Pasadena’s programs include a 24/7 Domestic Violence Crisis Hotline, a 16-bed Domestic Violence Emergency Shelter, a Domestic Violence Community Services Center, year-round Girls’ Empowerment programs focused on STEAM education and violence prevention, and a Racial Justice program focused on education and policy advocacy.
Through its service, Peterson said the YWCA has assisted thousands of women and girls and empowered them to make positive changes in their lives and communities, including Yllescas, who Peterson introduced on stage at the luncheon.
“This moment was extra special because just a few years earlier when we shared her story in a video at this same event, she wasn’t in a safe enough place to show her face on video,” Peterson said. “Now, she can freely stand in a room filled with strangers and share her story of leaving an abusive relationship and getting support from YWCA Glendale and Pasadena that helped her regain control and build a new life free from violence.”
Yllescas, at the luncheon, reflected on the trajectory of her life since closing the chapter of a painful page of her past. Peterson shared a portion of Yllescas’ message to the News-Press: “It was December 2018 when I decided that 22 years of abuse would end. Today, I stand here, holding my tears while I tell my story. I hope it will help more women like me, kids like mine and other innocent survivors. I am a survivor because of your support and donations. Thanks to you, I can enjoy life. Today, I am happily remarried and so happy to be alive. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!”
This year’s event sponsors and individual donors raised $48,000. Proceeds from the luncheon will help support YWCA Glendale and Pasadena’s programs to aid women and girls in the local community.
“Many of the people in the room were people who have supported us loyally for years,” said Peterson, who noted that the luncheon marked the first time the event has resumed in person since the COVID-19 pandemic. “It meant the world to see all these familiar faces, be able to hug people and to share the energy of being together.”
To learn more about YWCA’s domestic violence programs and to access resources, visit ywcagp.org/domestic-violence-programs. For donation information, visit ywcagp.org/donate.

First published in the June 3 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

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