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YWCA Fills the Void

Esther Tomljanovich had such a severe case of homesickness when she left home for law school that she spent nights wishing she’d get sick enough to be sent home. YWCA St. Paul proved to be the antidote to that bout of homesickness.

black and white photo of young women having bread in the kitchen
Young women enjoying breakfast in a YW residence hall, 1961

For more than 50 years, YWCA St. Paul provided residence housing and meals in downtown St. Paul to young women seeking a safe,  affordable place to call home. Many residents came from rural communities, seeking work in the Twin Cities. In the 1950’s, YW’s offerings included educational and recreational programs for its young renters.

A farm girl from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Esther was inspired as a child by Portia Blake, a female lawyer in a radio soap opera, fighting crime, injustice and civic corruption. With Portia as her role model, Esther ventured to the big city in 1951, securing housing in YWCA St. Paul’s downtown dormitory and becoming the only woman in her law class.

Esther would go on to have a distinguished career, becoming a district court judge and then a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice. “No one – not even my parents – would have expected that. Back then, doors were closed to women. Quite simply, women weren’t expected to have a career.”

black and white photo of young women unpacking a suitcase
Young women in a YW business club, 1950

But the 16 months she spent living at YW would prove pivotal – establishing the foundation for her new life in the city. “When I left home, I felt very overwhelmed. But YWCA St. Paul was a wonderful place for a lonesome, scared teenager. All those isolated girls in one place became a social group and support network for each other. The resident director was a role model for us. Since there were no other women in my class or at work, YW became my home – the place where I fit in.”

When she recalls those early days, Esther isn’t sure she would have made it without YWCA St. Paul. “For me, YW provided a transitional bridge. I came away with lifelong friends. It offered me a sense of safety and security. It filled a niche at that time for women who really didn’t have anywhere else to go. While YW no longer provides that kind of housing, it has continued to evolve to meet the needs of today’s young women. The good people at the YWCA St. Paul are still offering the support that women need today.”

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