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A strategic advocate for women in need

Carol O’Connor:
A strategic advocate for women in need

For Carol O’Connor, 1995 has become a year of transition and reflection. The executive director of the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County soon will leave her post after leading the organization through a complete turnaround. Before O’Connor assumes her new position as head of Planned Parenthood of Rochester and the Genesee Valley Inc. in September, she will get married. Meanwhile, she is grieving the recent loss of her mother.
“It’s been in some ways poignant,” she says, “in some ways fun.”
But the changes are nothing O’Connor cannot handle, co-workers and colleagues say. As YWCA assistant executive director Jean Carroll notes: “I think Carol is looking forward to another challenge, because she thrives on challenges.”
The need to rescue the YWCA confronted O’Connor when she became executive director in 1987. Plagued by management turnover and a mission obscured by its longtime role as a women’s fitness organization, the YWCA had a shaky reputation in the community. One month after O’Connor accepted the position, the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. pulled its funding.
O’Connor, forever upbeat, turned a near-disaster for the non-profit organization into an opportunity, colleagues say.
“Carol is optimistic, energetic and very determined,” says Sally Ward, president of the YWCA board of directors. “When Carol sets a course and has a vision, Carol goes for it.”
Recalls O’Connor: “We chose to view the United Way action as very positive in giving us a chance to say, “You’re right. We have to take a look at what the YWCA can do that’s unique.”’
First, the YWCA formed a committee to balance the budget, despite the 10 percent hit from the United Way well into the fiscal year. Second, the organization closed its swimming pool indefinitely. Third, task forces formed to discuss programming, facilities and community relations.
Then the YWCA redefined its mission, O’Connor says. The national organization developed with a focus on women’s fitness and recreation, a purpose still fulfilled by YWCAs in numerous small communities. Rochester had outgrown this need, so the YWCA refocused on support for women making transitions in their lives.
Although the YWCA dropped its fitness role, some programming that fit the new mission was retained, she says. One example is the Steppingstone Treatment Program, designed especially for women dependent on alcohol and/or drugs. The YWCA also kept its emergency and long-term housing efforts, and its Schoolage Parents Program to encourage teen mothers to finish school and seek further success.
As the organization’s focus shifted, gaps in service became apparent.
“Our strategic planning process turned up the fact that not only did women not know where to go for help, but organizations didn’t know what was available either,” O’Connor says. “And that gave us one of the major thoughts for the development of a new program, which is the Women’s Resource Center.”
Counselors at the 5-year-old center provide women with information on and assistance with everything from work, stress and unemployment to self-esteem. Life-skills classes on financial planning, self-defense and other subjects are part of the center, as is the Working Wardrobe, which provides women with clothing to enter or re-enter the work force. A recent addition funded by Judy Columbus Inc. Realtors is the Career Station, a computer center providing resume help, a means to practice word processing and other skills, and job listings from the state Department of Labor.
The center is the main reason the YWCA has quadrupled the number of people served annually over the last seven years, O’Connor says. Meanwhile, the YWCA’s budget doubled during her tenure to more than $2 million in fiscal 1995.
“We help women support their goals and make decisions on their own, and we connect them with the resources to make it happen,” she says. “We’re probably the closest thing to one-stop shopping for women, especially the Women’s Resource Center.”
A change in the agency’s mission also meant a necessary change in facilities, and renovations would not have been possible without forming a partnership with a for-profit entity, O’Connor says. Conifer Development Inc. reconstructed the facility at Clinton Avenue and Bittner Street for $7.8 million; with other business collaboration and grants, the cost to the YWCA was only $1 million.
The contribution of $2.75 million in tax credits from Bausch & Lomb Inc. was one way the non-profit could afford renovations, she says. Bausch & Lomb’s hefty contribution is symbolic of the trust and respect the YWCA and O’Connor now receive from the funding community, adds Jane Taylor, executive director of Rochester Grantmakers Forum.
The YWCA is rejuvenating its endowment with the recently launched Breaking New Ground for Women campaign, which already is almost halfway to replacing the $1 million spent on renovations, O’Connor says. The YWCA receives nearly one-third of its funding from its own investment income.
Renovations involved removing the pool, but brought construction of Supported Living, a floor of suites for women with children on their way from halfway houses to independent living. Also upgraded was the Child Care Center, which provides care for nearly 80 children, including some from families receiving subsidies.
O’Connor was an obvious choice for the Planned Parenthood position, her colleagues say. Both organizations are devoted to helping women, YWCA’s Carroll noted.
O’Connor’s sensitivity to the community and to women’s needs and rights is another reason, adds Jane Plitt of JP Associates, chairman of the board of WXXI Public Broadcasting Council, on which O’Connor serves.
O’Connor says she is joining Planned Parenthood because it is an opportunity to affect the lives of many women, and because she believes it is important for women to be able to exercise control over their lives. Her goals for Planned Parenthood include working with the board to develop a clear vision and strategy for the organization’s next several years; partnering with other organizations; guarding Planned Parenthood’s role as an advocate for reproductive options for women; and getting the good word out to the community about the organization’s offerings.
“I’d like to have Planned Parenthood be a household word for the wide range of services it provides,” she says.
One of the biggest challenges O’Connor will face at Planned Parenthood is the threat of violence from anti-abortion activists, some say. But O’Connor is not concerned, she says, especially with the continued support of the Rochester Police Department.
“It is something that is certainly of concern and something Planned Parenthood and others providing services have to be constantly aware of and cautious about,” she says. “However, you do what you need to do.”
O’Connor’s new position at Planned Parenthood is one more step in her lifelong career in the non-profit sector.
“There’s something rewarding about being in a business to help people grow and change, and help the community grow and change,” she says.
O’Connor grew up in Syracuse and attended Syracuse University. She began studying sociology because she wanted to help people, before realizing her desires had little to do with her major. She decided to study journalism instead because it promised more specific career opportunities.
With a journalism degree in hand O’Connor landed a post at the Syracuse YWCA in 1962. She subsequently moved to Rochester and its YWCA, where she worked as its public relations and public affairs director for four years. In 1968, she joined the Rochester Association for the United Nations as a public relations consultant.
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester Inc. appointed O’Connor public relations and membership director in 1974; three years later, she joined the American Red Cross’ Rochester-Monroe County Chapter as public relations director. In 1982, O’Connor moved up to assistant executive director of development for the Red Cross.
O’Connor admits that while the YWCA’s mission was important to her, she took the job of executive director in 1987 to gain experience as a non-profit executive. She otherwise might have avoided the organization because of its problems.
But as she prepares to depart, O’Connor realizes she is one of the women the YWCA helped.
“Now I feel like I was the beneficiary of the agency’s mission of helping women make transitions and helping women find their own strengths,” she says.
Non-profit work has its challenges, O’Connor says, especially in communications. The YWCA is responding by focusing its marketing on the gatekeepers or people at health centers, human services departments and other entities who make the referrals. In addition, Buck & Pulleyn Inc. recently assumed all responsibilities for the YWCA’s advertising needs.
One of the YWCA’s greatest communications challenges always has been differentiating itself from the YMCA, says O’Connor, pointing at a newspaper article with the incorrect acronym in its headline.
The YWCA is prepared for O’Connor’s Aug. 9 departure, board president Ward says.
“We feel that if Carol had to go, she is leaving things in excellent condition,” she says. “We are on a roll, and we will stay on a roll.”
The board in September approved a five-year strategic plan, including a balanced-budget plan. (The organization this year reported a deficit of $59,600.) Part of the plan also includes reaching out to women beyond the city limits, O’Connor says, an effort that might include satellite locations and use of computer technology.
The YWCA has appointed a search committee and expects to have a new executive director in place by the first of the year, Ward says.
O’Connor is pleased with the progress the YWCA has made during her tenure but says it has much work left to do.
“It’s not my work, it’s our work, and our work will never be done,” she says.
O’Connor says she feels strongly that women need to help each other. Through her work she became involved in a number of women’s organizations: the Rochester Women’s Network, of which she served as president for two years; Women in Communications Inc., from which she received the Matrix Award in 1983; and the Rochester Women’s Foundation.
O’Connor also donates time as secretary of WXXI, treasurer of the Advertising Council of Rochester Inc. and a board member of Rochester Downtown Special Services Inc. This year she served on the United Way’s Day of Caring Committee, and the same organization that denied the YWCA funding in 1987 named O’Connor United Way Executive of the Year in 1994.
O’Connor says she also is involved with women’s issues out of care for her two daughters: Nancy, 28, and Mimi, 25. O’Connor officially will add fiance Nick Love, an engineer, to the family next month.
While losing her mother was difficult, it also has proved to be an inspiration, she says. From speaking with people, O’Connor learned that those acquainted with her mother viewed her as a leader, someone good at problem-solving, finding common-sense answers and getting people to talk through conflicts.
“I just hope I can do as well in being a leader as my mother at 93 was,” she says.
O’Connor has no reason to worry, those who know her say.
“Carol is a facilitator, the kind of person who brings people together to address issues,” Ward says. “She gets things done by getting broad-based support–and she’s very good at garnering it.”
She is articulate, clearheaded and sensitive, Plitt observes.
“She is one of the most wonderful people I have ever met,” Taylor says, echoing others. “I am an unabashed fan of Carol O’Connor’s.”
The year’s events in O’Connor’s life, including time spent recently with a friend from elementary school, set her to thinking about where she has been and where she is going.
“I think it’s been a very reflective year for me, a very reflective time for me,” she says. “I think, “I’m 55 years old, and it doesn’t feel at all like what I thought it would.”’
O’Connor makes strategic plans for herself much as she has for the organizations with which she has worked. But the plan she now has for herself is open-ended.
“In terms of my ideal job, I guess my answer is, “I’ll know it when I see it,”’ she says. “When values and objectives are clear, you don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about what and where.”

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