Longtime Y member Erika Waechter was only one-and-a-half years old when her parents fled with her from Germany in 1938. Her young life was marked with finding a new home—at first in Sweden, then Boston and Virginia, and eventually Eugene.
But as a native German speaker—learning English as her third language—she didn’t feel like an American. Having fled her native country and the Nazis, she didn’t feel like a German either.
She felt more like a child of the world.
“Not having grown up with the language and sayings of the American culture, I felt like a foreigner for a long time,” she says.
It’s no wonder, then, that she finds herself a part of the Eugene Y family. It’s a place where everyone is welcome—no matter which country they hail from, which language they speak or what they look like.
“The Y feels like an inclusive place,” Erika says. “It feels like home.”
Erika knows how crucial a “home” is to the health and well-being of an individual. She is a licensed clinical social worker who helped found the Center for Family Development, which provides mental health services dedicated to supporting family relationships.
“What you do is so shaped by your family—and if it’s not your family, then wherever you get your support,” she says. “People don’t survive well if they are not supported.”
Erika was lucky that her parents were able to keep the stress of fleeing Germany from her. The family lived in Sweden for 2 years while waiting for a visa to get into the United States.
“We had to go around the world to get to the USA,” she says.
The Jewish Refugee Committee warned the family to avoid German U-boats in the Atlantic. That meant heading for America the long way—the family left Sweden for Moscow and took the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok in Russia. A ferry delivered them to Japan, where they spent 2 weeks before sailing for San Francisco. Once in the United States, they traveled another 3,000 miles to settle in Boston, where relatives lived.
Erika’s father, Heinz, had no trouble finding work as a professor and architect. The Waechter family moved to Virginia in 1947 and then settled in the Eugene area in 1950 when Heinz got a job at the university here. Heinz designed Eugene’s first synagogue.
In each new place, Erika’s mother, Lisl, forged a path for the education of special education students. In Eugene, Lisl founded Pearl Buck School for children with developmental disabilities. The school’s name was inspired by the Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Pearl S. Buck, who had a daughter with a developmental disability. At the time, there was no special education offered by public schools because state law prohibited it. Eventually, Lisl established the Pearl Buck Center for mentally disabled children and served as its executive director for 38 years.
Erika was in 9th grade when her family moved to Eugene. She lived on 12th Avenue and walked through fields to get to Roosevelt Middle School. At that time, 35,000 people lived in Eugene and 5,000 of them were associated with the university.
Erika, now 82, used to walk a lot. She was very involved in her community as a teenager and young adult—participating in all of the high school plays and even portraying the Virgin Mary in a Christmas play at her friend’s church.
In college, she was part of the synchronized swimming team. Erika taught yoga at one time—getting so involved in the practice that she had a yoga guru and stayed in an ashram, a place of religious retreat.
Erika became a licensed clinical social worker who then studied and taught in many places in the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Israel. Her main focus is family therapy.
When her brother bought a boat, they sailed together for 2 weeks—collaborating and brainstorming ideas based on each other’s expertises. In the end, in 1991, they founded the Center for Family Development, where she worked for 25 years.
Now she spends most of her time in Eugene and the Y is very much a part of her routine.
She has been a Y member for 10 years.
If Erika isn’t in the Y pool in the morning, something is amiss. The only day she skips is Sunday.
“I’m very dependent on swimming to give me exercise,” she says. “There’s no other pool like the Y’s. I’m grateful for this part of my routine. It is low-impact and aerobic.”
In the end though, it’s the people that keep Erika coming back.
“It helps that I connect well with Y staff, like Curt,” she says. “And this year Y members joined me to help celebrate my birthday.”