A Heart for Survivors
New CEO is not new to YWCA and is focused on empowering women in her care
It was early in the morning when Erin Lambert got her first call as a volunteer for YWCA Billings. She quickly dressed and headed over to Billings Clinic’s emergency room, where she met a teenage girl, the survivor of sexual assault. Erin was terrified, wondering what she should say. After a couple of deep breaths, she set aside her anxiety and let compassion lead her. Erin offered the girl a listening ear and a hand to hold during the forensic exam to collect evidence that could be used to prosecute her perpetrator.
Eighteen years later, Erin still remembers the young survivor and is still letting compassion lead her. Erin was recently named CEO of YWCA Billings and remembering that young girl, and the many others she accompanied during forensic examinations, grounds her in the work she does now.
“Many, many times they were there alone and a lot of times it was 2 or 3 in the morning. That’s the time when sexual assault survivors maybe couldn’t sleep or couldn’t take it anymore and they called,” Erin says.
She saw herself in many of them: college aged, carefree, and perhaps taking a few risks now and then.
“Just to be there for somebody with no judgment and no questions asked is so important,” Erin says. “A lot of times we never even talked about the assault.”
YWCA Billings still provides accompaniment for survivors of sexual assault. It is just one program Erin now oversees. The YWCA primarily offers support for survivors of domestic violence, including emergency shelter and short-term housing. Advocates also help survivors navigate the legal system, find employment or job training, and acquire permanent housing. The organization is also a safe haven for survivors of human trafficking. The YWCA provides many of the same services to survivors in Bighorn County and maintains a 24-hour crisis helpline.
Erin has held many positions within the YWCA, starting in 2007 when she transitioned from being a volunteer to leading the sexual assault response program. She took every opportunity as it came, and she has held almost every leadership position in the organization before finally taking the helm as interim CEO in September 2021. She landed the position permanently in June.
YWCA Board Chair Stacey Nybo Black assisted in the search to fill the CEO vacancy and said there was no candidate who had the experience that Erin had.
“She was just the perfect fit,” Stacey says. “Her passion for her work is inspiring.”
Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are at the center of everything the YWCA does, and they are top of mind for Erin.
“We offer all that we can and give them the best we have to offer so that hopefully they know they have value and worth as a human being,” she says.
One of Erin’s goals as CEO is to flip the script on how survivors are seen by the community. There’s a tendency for people to focus on all the damage and trauma a survivor has endured, but Erin wants the story to be about survivors’ strength, resiliency, and hope for the future. She wants all YWCA messaging to be focused on empowerment.
“Marginalized and victimized people do not need me to tell their story,” Erin says. “They need love and support so they can tell their own story.”
Not every outcome is rosy, but Erin encourages her team to let go of their expectations and focus on the needs and desires of the survivors they work with.
“Everyone gets to define their own version of success,” she says.
Erin is also on a mission to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of YWCA. The organization’s brochure has been updated to reflect the diversity of the survivors they serve and includes gender neutral language so as not to exclude any male, trans, or non-binary survivors. Erin added a sign to the lobby stating YWCA’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It welcomes people of all ages, races, genders, religions, and backgrounds. There’s lots more to be done, Erin says, but the organization is off to a good start.
Where Erin once lost sleep thinking of survivors, she now ponders fundraising, community engagement, team building, and a host of other goals she has in mind for the YWCA.
As a nonprofit, fundraising is a constant endeavor, and Erin is always thinking outside the box and looking for new ways to raise money and engage community members. She said she will always value donors who give large gifts, but she never overlooks those who simply give what they can.
“My message to the community is that every gift matters,” Erin says. “The YWCA is for everybody. Anyone who wants to join us in this work is welcome to make this community a better place.”
This past year, Erin has worked closely with community leaders, including the Billings City Council, to establish a Family Justice Center on the YWCA campus. The center would provide support to individuals and families who are navigating the legal system as well as a variety of social services. The city is invested in the idea and all the community partners are coming together, Erin says, and she’s quick to point out that she has a building – the original Gateway Shelter – that could be used.
It's never far from Erin’s mind that the work YWCA does saves lives, and while she has very little direct contact with survivors, her focus is on supporting and developing her team so they can provide those critical, direct services.
“I want this to be the best place to work,” Erin says. “I get to set the culture and the tone in our organization and decide how my team is treated, which is reflected in how they treat our survivors,” Erin says. “We treat them with the utmost dignity and respect, and I want to do that for our employees.”
Fawn Reed has worked with Erin since 2016. Fawn oversees the legal services and victim services programs at YWCA. What she admires most about Erin is her unwavering desire to collaborate with staff and community partners. She’s always looks for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.
“The work she does is not just a job to her,” Fawn says. “Aside from her family, the YWCA and the clients we serve are her number one priority.”
In Erin’s tenure at the YWCA, she’s seen a steady increase in calls to the helpline and the need for more wrap-around services. Part of the increase is due to the rise in gun violence and drug abuse in Billings, but people are also more aware of the YWCA and the help it provides to survivors. That awareness has brought about an increase in calls, but Erin points to an even more challenging trend, and that is generational trauma. Children exposed to domestic violence, neglect and abuse are growing up without adequate coping skills and are ending up as abusers and victims themselves. She knows the children of the survivors that the YWCA serves are at risk and wants to see support for them continue to expand so the next generation won’t experience the same heartache.
“I try not to let the emotional aspect of this work get to me,” Erin says.
She’s become adept at compartmentalizing her emotions and leaves her work at work. With few exceptions she’s home every night to make dinner for her children and husband. She is deliberate in her decision to be fully present for them.
“I have an amazing opportunity as a mother,” Erin says. “I get to send these three amazing humans out into the world with my values and teach them empathy and compassion.”
When Erin looks to the future of the YWCA she’s overcome with gratitude.
“It’s been my honor and privilege to be at YWCA for so many years,” Erin says, “and I am so thankful for all the opportunities I’ve been given along the way to become a leader and be a part of so many survivors’ lives.”