FACES OF YWCA NASHVILLE & MIDDLE TENNESSEE | NEWTONIA COLEMAN
When she first got involved with YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee, Newtonia Coleman was a single, working mother who was interested in giving back to the community. It was the mid-1980s, and the Louisville, KY native had moved to Nashville to attend Fisk University, whose mission is to “produce graduates from diverse backgrounds with the integrity and intellect required for substantive contributions to society.” Newtonia has done just that, contributing first as a volunteer and several decades later, as the face of our Dress for Success Nashville program. She’ll be retiring from the program this summer.
In the early 1980’s, YWCA opened the first domestic violence shelter in Nashville. It was a small house, located in Midtown Nashville. Newtonia spent time volunteering with the women and children there. A Human Resources professional with the United Methodist Communications, she was soon drafted to serve on the YWCA HR committee, offering her expertise as the YWCA’s work in the domestic violence space expanded.
Her commitment and time with the YWCA grew. She joined the Board of Directors, and in 1994, she became chair. One of Nashville’s and the YWCA’s longest running awards program – the Academy for Women of Achievement – was launched during her tenure on the Board. Newtonia even emceed the inaugural AWA celebration, held 31 years ago. She laughs about that today, and is happy that NewsChannel 5’s Lelan Statom has become a fixture in that role for nearly two decades.
When Newtonia retired from her longtime career with United Methodist Communications in 2013, she wasn’t really ready to stop working altogether. She took some time to look after extended family, and then began checking out part-time job listings on the Center for Nonprofit Management’s Job Board. There, she saw a posting for a new program within YWCA.
Dress for Success – a women’s empowerment and career program that suits women who are entering or re-entering the workforce – had previously operated as a stand-alone nonprofit in Nashville from the late 1990’s to 2007, when it closed due to staffing and funding challenges. After a few years of negotiations, YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee brought this perfect fit into its portfolio of programs in the summer of 2014. And it needed a leader.
“I interviewed for this newly created position for a brand new program, and I thought I blew it,” says Newtoina smiling broadly. “It had been so long since I interviewed for a new job, I told myself – you did a HORRIBLE job!”
But those hiring for this position didn’t think so at all, and Newtonia heard what so many of the women who come to Dress for Success Nashville hear: “You got the job!”
She was thrilled, and got right to work. Dress for Success accepts donations of gently worn and new business clothes from the community. The program utilizes a dedicated network of volunteers and works with more than 40 referral partners who send women to the YWCA’s program to be suited for an interview. And once she receives a job offer, the clients return for a week’s worth of clothing, shoes, and accessories. Donations are critical to the operation of the program.
Originally located in the back of the YWCA now-closed East Nashville resale store on Gallatin Pike, the Dress for Success boutique moved to YWCA’s main offices in Green Hills.
“I’m very proud of the way the boutique looks. It’s very inviting,” said Newtonia. “But I’m most proud of the difference we make in the lives of the women we serve. In a very short time–we have them for an hour or 90 minutes–we can make a huge difference. We help them with self esteem. If you look good, you feel good and confident. We are able to do that and it’s just amazing for me to be a part of it.”
YWCA’s Dress for Success program has suited nearly 1,000 women since opening its doors nine years ago and taken in many tons of donated suits, dresses, and career clothing. The original goal was to serve 75 women a year, but that soon doubled to 150. The pandemic slowed down the programs’ operations for a short time, but it became clear women were still in need of its services, so appointments were held virtually and contactless suitings began happening. The Women’s Professional Group was launched a few years ago, offering bi-monthly support groups and professional development services to clients so they stay connected and can advance in their careers.
Newtonia always looks forward to the Salute to Success initiative that suits female veterans each November and the UpRise large group suitings that happen several times a year. These efforts couldn’t happen without the program’s volunteers and donors. During the pandemic when donations were paused, people held onto their clothing until the YWCA was able to open the boutique doors and accept the donations.
“We have PHENOMENAL volunteers,” said Newtonia. “One of our longest serving volunteers had foot surgery recently. I looked up, and she was here the day after she took the stitches out volunteering. We are truly blessed. We have SO much support.”
Dress for Success is a natural fit for the mission of YWCA. Newtonia has helped the program grow from a dark, small space in the back of a store in East Nashville to a bright, cheerful, thriving program that is an important part of the fabric of the Nashville community. Newtonia believes there is so much community support because Dress for Success is all about women helping women, and women empowering women. Newtonia says she will miss it terribly when she retires (for the second time) in her career. And YWCA will miss her terribly.
“When I think of Newtonia, these three words come to mind: observant, devoted, mission-focused,” said YWCA’s Director of Community Engagement Allison Adams. “When Newtonia serves our clients, referral partners, and volunteers, she compassionately delivers the highest standards of professionalism and then tops it with a healing helping of grace. Her infectious laugh is the cherry on top! While I can’t really picture the Dress for Success boutique without Newtonia holding down the fort, I am very happy for her to be trading in her YWCA name badge for her preferred moniker – “Gigi”. Her new boss – granddaughter, Rayn Grace – will continue to keep her very busy!”