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Lyda Fuller to retire as head of YWCA after 23 years

Lynn Brooks delivers a speech to a crowd at the grand opening of Betty House last Friday after Lyda Fuller, executive director for YWCA Yellowknife, announced the home would be re-named the Lynn Brooks Safe Place for Women in honour of her. Photo by Randi Beers/Northern News Services

Lyda Fuller, longtime executive director of the YWCA NWT and nationally recognized advocate for women, family and related social issues, will retire from her position in May.

Lyda Fuller, executive director of the YWCA NWT, is seen here recently in her Niven-area office. She will be retiring in May after 23 years of heading the organization.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Fuller, 71, first came to Yellowknife in the summer of 1996 on contract from the YWCA in Regina, after serving in the Saskatchewan capital for six years. Before that, she worked at the YWCA in St. Thomas, Ont.

So for 35 years she has spent her working career working for YWCAs across the country - most of which was in Yellowknife. Today she is the longest serving person in the national organization.

"Well, I will probably go through a grieving period. I love this job," she said when asked how she feels about retiring.

"I have had a chance in my time with the YWCA - and especially here in Yellowknife- to really have an impact. There is so much that could be done and that needs to be done. You never get bored, you never run out of projects or things to do.

"I have really, really loved the work and loved the staff and the community."

Although serving enthusiastically for 23 years under multi-year contracts, Fuller said it is time for the YWCA to find new leadership.

"I told our board of directors last June that I probably wouldn't be doing another multi-year contract," she explained.

"For me, it was because two years ago I was diagnosed with heart failure and advised that I should seriously consider retiring then."

The YWCA, after more than 50 years in the NWT, is one of the largest non-government organizations in the territory tackling women and family violence, homelessness and poverty.

The executive director position oversees a $6 million budget, 100 staff and $4 million four-million in physical assets. This is on top of programming for those of the population most in need.

Fuller said over the years, she has enjoyed coming to work in an effort to make a difference.

"It is the diversity because you are never bored," she explained. "There are always lots of interesting challenges and you almost get to pick and choose.

"There are so many issues around poverty and violence and homelessness and all of the social issues and the historical colonialism and historical nature of underpinnings of some of the social conditions. It is always interesting and diverse. "

Fuller said  the biggest challenge that remains, even after more than a year, is the making up for the loss of the Rockhill Apartments.

In October 2018, the congregate housing structure on 54 Avenue in Yellowknife burned to the ground, leaving 33 families homeless and scattered across the city. It was an impact that the organization still feels to this day, she said.

"There are certainly no lack of challenges," she said. "The biggest one is just the recovery of long-term housing after the fire at Rockhill. That is the big issue.

"It was our own little community. We had Christmas dinners and Thanksgiving turkeys and it was lovely. And we have lost that and everybody feels it."

Replacing those housing units will outlive her tenure, but she said she expects some housing units will be constructed on the two lots next to Lynn's Place - likely within five years.

"I'm thinking five years to completion," she said, noting that the next step will be to meet with architects this month to get a sense of how many units can be provided. "We are looking at four storeys with an elevator and more housing that is affordable and accessible."

Rockhill Apartments, which housed 35 units and office space for the YWCA, burned to the ground in October 2018. Replacing housing for 33 families will be biggest project going forward, said outgoing executive director Lydia Fuller.
NNSL file photo

Looking back, Fuller said there were a number of accomplishments over the years she was proud of and she hopes she has left the organization a better place - including as a place to work- than when she arrived.

Among the highlights she mentioned included in 2009 being involved with pan-territorial research on the causes of homelessness for Northern women. This was particularly rewarding, she said because it involved interviewing women across the Northern territories to get a sense of the true underlying causes of women's homelessness.

The work eventually led to an affordable housing strategy in the NWT.

"The ability to do things like that and get funding for pieces of research or to really shine a light on  what conditions are like in the North, how things happen and what needs to be done - it gets you out of the day to day," she said. "You begin to start feeling like you can make a bigger impact."

The YWCA was also involved in studying the safety conditions of women in small communities following the 2009 murder of Gameti resident Alice Black. Black, 31, at the time, was the mother of seven and killed by her common-law spouse Terry James Vital.

Other accomplishments over the years included strengthening the networking and training between women's shelters under the YWCA. The organization also acquired the eight-bed Sutherland House in Fort Smith after it was in danger of closing and opened Betty House (later to be named Lynn's Place) in 2014 in Yellowknife.