The YWCA has meant survival for many central Jerseyans. For Carol Watchler, a retired educator, the Breast Cancer Resource Center supported her through the emotional struggles of breast cancer. For Lindsey Vasquez, now a junior at Hillsborough High School, the child care center at the Valley Road School gave her the English skills she needed for kindergarten while the YWCA’s English as a second language program did the same for her mother.

And the list of transformative YWCA programs goes on. A newcomers club with monthly luncheons and coffees and over 30 interest groups, an over-40 dance group, a racial justice institute sponsoring cross-racial and cross-cultural dialogue, programs offering classes in aquatics, art, ballet, gymnastics, and yoga specially adapted to children with physical or mental disabilities. Also summer camp, gymnastics, and senior aquatics.

These YWCA programs focusing on community needs flow directly from the national YWCA mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.” Yet the hoards of parents who rush to sign up their children for swimming and gymnastics classes — and other area residents who take classes at the Y — are often unaware of the organizations’s extensive mission-based programming.

The Princeton YWCA is initiating an effort to educate the community on what it has to offer through the voices of 12 women and girls whose lives have been changed by the YWCA. On Sunday, November 8, at the YWCA Princeton, 59 Paul Robeson Place, each of the women will speak and attendees will receive free copies of the YWCA’s new calendar “Twelve Lives Changed.” Following the reception, the calendar will be for sale at the YWCA’s registration office as well as in local bookstores and other outlets. To receive an invitation to the event, call 609-497-2100, ext. 333, or e-mail

Carol Watchler received her breast cancer diagnosis in 2003. “I had retired a few months earlier, and it wasn’t what was in my plan, but it was nevertheless there,” she says. “I feel very, very lucky; my treatment was pretty standard, and it went well, and I feel very lucky to be on the other side.” Although Watchler says she never stops being concerned about a recurrence, she just focuses on eating right, exercising, keeping stress under control, and living her life.

Since her diagnosis, Watchler has become involved the YWCA’s Breast Cancer Resource Center and other related volunteer activities. After a friend referred her to the BCRC, then on Route 206, Watchler dipped into the center’s helpful resources and attended monthly programs. Her involvement increased when the BCRC moved back to Bramwell House, adjacent to the Y building.

One BCRC program Watchler volunteers for is Women of Wisdom, which offers panels at workplaces and churches and sets up tables at community festivals, where she helps educate women about monitoring their own bodies and doing monthly self-exams for signs and symptoms of anything abnormal. “They are getting the perspectives on the panel of a survivor who has been through breast cancer, a health-care provider, and a family caregiver,” she says.

Watchler has also served as a “phone buddy” for people with specific questions about treatment or just need to talk to someone who has already been through the experience. The telephone relationship often morphs into walks in the park and meetings for coffee as well. “It’s very rewarding, and you really end up making a friend,” says Watchler. These relationships often continue after the treatment is over. “They become a part of the sisterhood,” says Watchler. “There we are with this commonality that we have all found ourselves in, not by choice, but I can certainly say I’ve met wonderful people.”

The BCRC also linked Watchler to a partner organization, the Machestic Dragons, which has been very significant in Watchler’s life as a breast cancer survivor. The organization supports survivors through competitions where a team of 20 paddlers, a steerer, and a drummer in the rear paddle ancient Chinese dragon boats with a dragon head on the prow and a tail at the stern.

The Princeton area team, which includes survivors and supporters, not only competes in races from Montreal, Quebec, down to Washington, DC, but also hosts a local race, Paddle for Pink, whose proceeds go to the Machestic Dragons and to the BCRC. Other community groups, for example, the Central Jersey Oncology Center and Whole Foods Market, form teams and the BCRC fields more than one team and also provides a weekly coach.

The Machestic Dragons also functions as a continuing support group. “It’s something we can do together and know that, as we’re doing it, we’re taking care of ourselves,” she says. “We also keep tuned into other people so we know how they are doing and so we can be available to folks who may have a recurrence or have medical or other needs.”

Watchler is also involved in other breast cancer initiatives. For five years she has participated in the Patient Educator project out of the Breast Cancer Center in Summit, which works with medical students, residents, and other health-care professionals. She is also part of Lesbians with Cancer at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, a comfortable setting where, she says, “my partner has a place to be there with me.”

She also volunteers for the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which works to make schools safe for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and tries to stop the bullying and name calling.

Finally, Watchler serves as an emergency medical technician in her town.

Watchler grew up in Cleveland. Her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother was a calligrapher and tutor. She graducated from Notre Dame of Ohio. A former high school science and mathematics teacher (she retired in 2003), in the latter part of her career Watchler connected students at South Brunswick High School with experiential learning programs, internships where they could explore careers, and community service opportunities.

Whereas the YWCA made a big difference in Watchler’s life after retirement, its Childcare Center at Valley Road started to influence Lindsey Vasquez at about age two and a half. Vasquez remembers being hesitant at the beginning, because she didn’t like being left with caregivers by her parents, immigrants from Mexico, when they went off to work. “The first time, I was scared; I would cry every time,” says Vasquez. “Miss Patti (Preston) would always tell me it would be okay, and I started to notice that I felt safe there. Miss Patti helped a lot; she would talk with me and play with me.”

Patti Preston, the director of the center since its founding in December 1995, describes Vasquez as a little girl, “She came with no English skills. She was cute as a button, but very timid and quiet.” Vasquez’s mother also spoke no English and her father’s English skills were minimal. The family was representative of the majority population at Valley Road, the children of immigrants who, in addition to standard preschool curriculum, need to learn English so that they are able to enter kindergarten on par with native speakers and without fear.

To make sure that Valley Road students, 90 percent of whom are native Spanish speakers, learn the English they need to succeed in kindergarten, Valley Road makes ure its methods correspond to the latest academic work on second-language learning. Early on the program used full English immersion, but now Spanish plays a supporting role in the curriculum. When students feel more secure in their native tongue, they achieve greater accuracy in their second language development. As a result, colors, for example, are labeled in both languages, and storytellers read bilingually.

The YWCA provides scholarships to 90 percent the current students — but also requires everyone to pay at least 25 percent of the sliding scale fee so that they value the education at the center. The full hourly fees have risen from $4 an hour in 1995 to $5 an hour today.

Both Valley Road and the childcare center on Paul Robeson Place offer standard nursery fare — free play, story time, show and tell, and project time — and teacher training for the two is identical. The deciding factor for which center the YWCA will suggest to families is whether they need wraparound care, which is only available at Valley Road. If families want half-day care, they are invited to visit both sites and the site the child attends will be based on available space and family preferences.

The school has also helped the children’s families get on their feet. “We have helped people read car leases and write their first checks,” says Preston. “We don’t want to say we’re a social service agency but we tend to do a lot more than taking care of the children.”

Today Lindsey Vasquez is an active teen. She loves riding quads, or four-wheeled dirt bikes, on the big property her father owns in Hillsborough. As part of Interact, a high-school volunteering club, Vasquez is responsible for recruiting volunteers for the women’s shelter in Hillsborough where she helps out by answering the door, being a receptionist, and babysitting.

Vasquez wants to become a landscape architect, in part because, when she was little, she loved to make plans for rearranging her room and in part she wants to contribute to her father’s landscaping business. “I wanted to do something that would help my family,” she says. “By being a landscape architect I would improve his business and I would be part of it.” Her hope is that she will help the business grow and bring in the money her family will need to send all of her brothers and sisters to college.

Valley Road has played an important role for Vasquez’s family as well. “My mom said it was a big weight off her shoulders because she needed a decent babysitter,” she says, “and she was glad that she found a school close to home and they could teach me.” Vasquez herself helped shepherd several of her brothers and sisters to the school — until the family moved. “When each of her siblings came to us,” says Preston, “Lindsey was there to bring them in, walk them around, and tell them how great and how fun it is.”

Speaking of Vasquez and other children in that early cohort, Preston observes, “They have memories of us as some of their first friends. Love and security were paramount at the time. We would help make them secure, stop crying, and realize Mommy is coming back.” Separation anxiety, she adds, is often a little stronger with children who don’t speak the primary language.

Vasquez has not forgotten her years at Valley Road. “Every time I go, I remember all the teachers and I remember all the songs,” she says. The summer before last Vasquez volunteered at Valley Road, and she is thinking about doing it again this summer. “It brings back good memories,” she says, “and since this is my last full summer and then I have to go to college, I probably won’t see them for awhile.”

“Twelve Lives Changed” Reception, Princeton YWCA, 50 Paul Robeson Place, Princeton. Sunday, November 8, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. “Twelve Lives Changed,” the 2010 calendar featuring the portraits and voices of 12 women and girls whose lives have been changed through the YWCA’s programs. Each will speak about their stories. Champagne and light fare. Calendar to each attendee. Free. 609-497-2100.

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