YWCA Columbus’ renovation stretches its staff into new roles


In 2014, the YWCA Columbus began to raise $25 million to renovate the historic Griswold building, increase its endowment and sustain its family center.

Now, the end is in sight, as residents move in and the grand reopening is slated for early 2017. President and CEO Elfi Di Bella and Vice President of Communications and Marketing Patti O’Toole took time to reflect on what they learned.

At times, it was like drinking water from a fire hose, Di Bella says. The senior leadership spent two or three years doing double or triple duty. Luckily, everyone has passion for the work and a great culture supported the extra effort.

“When we decided that we were moving forward with this project, not only did we have the support of the community and funders, and certainly our board of trustees, but the team was 100 percent behind it,” she says.

You do worry about burnout, though, Di Bella says. That’s why it’s important to make it fun and keep the higher purpose in mind.

For example, YWCA Columbus does small events to celebrate, like a cooking night with team members and their spouses — because the workload impacts families, too.

Di Bella herself visits their women and families at least once a week, to remember why it’s worth it. If she can interact with the people YWCA Columbus serves, she gets up every morning with a smile on her face.

O’Toole had a different metaphor for the project’s hard work and worthwhile reward.

“It’s just like having a baby. You’re all in. You have no choice,” she says. “This thing is going to be done, and certainly along the pregnancy there are times when you don’t feel well and your feet swell and you just want to sleep … and there’s no turning back, regardless of how much you want to.

“So, I think there is a certain momentum to the project, and it’s actually fun to learn all of the little things along the way.”

Historic challenges

The renovation created 91 small apartments for women with mental illness and chronic homelessness, so they can gain skills to live independently. Previously, the dorm-like rooms had shared bathrooms and community kitchens.

YWCA Columbus also hopes to increase its revenue-generating streams.

Di Bella says they wanted to use every nook and cranny of the building in a thoughtful way. The ballroom was moved to the basement and a professional kitchen was added. The rental spaces were updated and a co-working space was created.

A 90-plus-year-old building, however, presents unforeseen conditions that require workarounds, Di Bella says. It’s important to be flexible and nimble.