An oasis in the neighborhood
New Lytton Avenue women's center offers a place to gather, connect
Downtown North resident Katie Ritchey this week walked through the well-appointed ground floor of her new nonprofit for women, Deborah's Palm, pointing out the opportunities that will be available to all who come through the door: a resource center, game table, library, research nook, kitchen and professional counseling offices, to name a few.
"It's a gift," said Ritchey, a Palo Alto native who has dreamt for years of creating a place for connection for Palo Alto's overly worked, stressed-out women.
Named after the Biblical prophet and judge Deborah, who held court under a palm tree, the center will offer educational and recreational classes, brown-bag lunchtime lectures, professional counseling and community-service activities and mentoring, she said.
A library, resource center and therapy with licensed counselors are open to women of all ranges of socio-economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. There are fees for the classes, but counseling is open for all women, regardless of economic standing, she said. There is no membership fee, she said.
Ritchie and a group of friends funded the center out of their own pockets, taking two years to convert the old Victorian at 555 Lytton Ave. into what they hope will be a restorative gathering place for women.
The center will open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Mayor Pat Burt on May 14 from noon to 6 p.m., with live music, door prizes and gift bags.
Ritchey said she hopes women working downtown will consider Deborah's Palm a destination place.
Silicon Valley women face particular challenges, despite the notion some hold that "rich Palo Alto women have everything," she said.
But money can't buy love — or friendship — or rid one of isolation, she said. Bay Area women often live hectic lives, struggle with the increasing economic costs of the area and pressure to "do it all," raising families, juggling careers and caring for aging parents, she said.
"Self-care is often put on the back burner, and we find ourselves thirsty and depleted," she said.
The germ for Deborah's Palm came in part out of Ritchey's own experiences with uncertainty and isolation. A breast cancer survivor, she also spent nearly four years caring for her ailing mother, who had had a debilitating stroke, she said.
"I wanted to provide a place that's easy to access when you're depressed and down. Often (in crises), you're asking 'Who do I go to?'
"Even though we're in a community rich with resources it's a mystery how to access those resources if you're not attuned," she said.
Ritchey started thinking seriously about creating Deborah's Palm while studying for her master's degree in clinical psychology, which she received last December. A former biologist with Syntex (now Roche), she has three grown children. She returned to school after becoming an empty-nester, she said.
She has been a mentor to teens, a lay counselor teacher and trained to be a lay chaplain for Stanford University Hospital, working in the bone-marrow transplant ward.
Her masters' thesis was on how social support networks alleviate stress in women throughout their lives.
"I examined what made up women's social networks in early, middle and late in life, and it changed," she said.
There was one constant. "Women are stressed and feel isolated," she said.
It was the quality of the relationships and not the quantity of people, she added. Women who had deeper relationships were more satisfied.
"You can't buy relationships. You can't buy connection and restoration. We're providing an opportunity for that to happen organically ... and that just happens when you get women together," she said.
Deborah's Palm will eventually offer three types of mentoring: cross-cultural, older and younger women and experience-based, for women with similar situations, she said.
Prints of famous and powerful women — Queen Victoria stands out — grace the walls. Persian rugs and dark leather chairs provide a cozy ambience for settling into. A full-service kitchen is available for cooking classes or to make a pot of tea. There's a card table for Scrabble and a computer for research.
A separate building houses a class/art and recreation room. Ambient light streams in, playing on differently colored walls, from periwinkle to green to lipstick red.
Women can sun themselves in the landscaped garden with a burbling fountain or listen to lunchtime lectures under three mature palms, gaining wisdom as they might have in Deborah's time.
Deborah is chronicled as having roused her people out of deep despair to battle against their oppressors. In modern times, Ritchey hopes the center can do the same.
"Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle. You don't know what it is," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann @paweekly.com.