Something for Everyone – richmondmagazine.com

Something for Everyone – richmondmagazine.com

Abby Farris Rogers has been thinking a lot about the blind man and the elephant.

“There’s a misconception about who we are,” says the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Richmond. “It’s a lot like that old parable: The blind man touches the elephant’s tail, and he thinks that it’s a long, skinny thing, and then he touches the trunk and the legs and thinks it’s something else.”

The YMCA of Greater Richmond has a lot of limbs. Boasting 16 neighborhood branches from Ashland to Petersburg, a 105-acre Chesterfield summer camp and a state-of-the-art aquatics center in Henrico’s East End, you may know it as a youth sports organization, a place for health management, a gathering spot for seniors, a pool or a gym. “But if you use our after-school or summer camps, we’re child care provider,” Rogers says. “And the truth is that we are all of those things.”

For 167 years, the Richmond YMCA has helped the community in ways appreciated but not always acknowledged. “People probably don’t realize that pre-COVID, we were the second largest employer of first-time employees after Kings Dominion,” says Megan O’Neill, the Y’s executive vice president. “We’re giving teens the opportunity at their first job, and how to learn, grow, work.”

The Y is really a social institution, says Tricia Puryear, vice president of recruitment and leadership development. “It’s like a community center or place of worship trying to convene and gather people. All of these things we do, like basketball, swimming or working out, are vehicles to building a stronger Richmond. That’s different from a standard gym.”

Since the pandemic began, the YMCA has been called to expand and retool its mission, to do even more. The elephant is even larger.

“People see us as an asset and understand we play a pivotal role,” says Rogers, a former public relations professional who joined the YMCA in 2012 to oversee community development and philanthropy. “I don’t know if they understand the complete nature of who and what we are. And we’re always looking at the community as it is today, because it may not be the community it was yesterday.”

More Than a Cheesy Song

The sign on the two-lane road that leads to the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird in Chesterfield County reads, “Please excuse the mess, children are making memories.”

The woodsy 105-acre campus welcomed campers in summer 2021 after a year that saw social distancing and a sharp decline in attendance. Jason Ching, the camp’s operations director, prepared for Thunderbird’s first open house last spring — with hundreds of K-10 parents, walking around and kicking the trees. Talking over the rattle and buzz of weed whackers, pavers and utility trucks, Ching pointed to cabins called “huddle sites,” where campers can go for devotion time if they choose. “Some people still think of us as a Christian organization,” he says. “That’s not the focus, but there are aspects of faith embodied in the values that we talk about and teach, like character development.”

A 10-year-veteran of the Richmond Y, the boyish head counselor takes a visitor on a winding golf cart tour down Thunderbird’s dirt roads, passing clubhouses, lodges and dining halls left over from the days when the camp, which buttresses Pocahontas State Park, was once owned by the Boy Scouts. He stops near an open space that reveals a 7-acre body of water, Lake George, where campers fish, canoe, kayak and navigate an aqua zipline. “Some will register for one week, others, around 25%, will camp the whole summer,” Ching says, adding that eligibility stops at age 15 because “once the kids are that age, they can start working here.” This summer saw 3,696 registered campers, nearly double 2020’s numbers but down from 4,477 in 2019.

“A lot of people know us more through that cheesy Village People song,” Ching laments. Growing up in Chesterfield, he was a frequent visitor to the outdoor pool and gym at the Midlothian branch. But it’s a funny thing, he says. “I didn’t even know Camp Thunderbird existed. When I became a counselor, my eyes really opened up to everything the YMCA does.” He laughs. “It’s a lot to take in. I mean, we do an awful lot.”

Ground Zero for Water Safety

Twenty-five miles away in eastern Henrico County, the Frank Thornton YMCA Aquatic Center still smells new, just out of the box.

Situated within the Henrico County Government Complex, this 21,000-square-foot complex was due for a splashy ribbon-cutting last March, just as COVID-19 struck. It finally opened last September to an eager community. “There were so many who were not ready to enter a gym but felt safe in a pool because they could put their face in the water,” says Liz Hansbury, the YMCA’s director of regional training and leadership development.

She’s worked for different YMCA associations across the country in her 20-year career and was picked to helm the aquatic center because of her experience opening a similar facility in Austin, Texas. “We’re an international organization, but we’re locally focused,” she says. “The work I’ve done in every city and state I’ve worked in has been different from the next, because the needs of that community are different.”

When the YMCA looked at the region, eastern Henrico was a place that had a gap, Rogers recalls. “Kids need a place to go to swim. We didn’t have the capital dollars [$10 million], but Henrico did and allocated the dollars to build that pool, and we’re committed to running it for the next 20 years, taking on the operational costs and upkeep of the building.” The facility is open to both YMCA members and Henrico residents, many of whom cannot afford to belong to a private pool. Officials see the center as ground zero for area water safety; the plan is for all Henrico preschoolers to take swimming lessons here.

On a Tuesday afternoon, the eight-lane, 25-yard pool is modestly populated with swimmers of all skill levels — while some do vigorous laps, others float and glide. A warm-water instructional pool is ready to use, plus a twisty water slide and a children’s area with lots and lots of spray.

Shawn Goodall, 55, a 15-year YMCA member, travels from Ashland three times a week to wade here. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, and the water is so soothing,” she says. “My doctor advises that I keep it up and stay in the water.” After losing a sister to COVID-19 last year, Goodall finds the YMCA a peaceful respite.

“Don’t tell everyone about this place,” she says with a giggle. “This is my little secret.”

Accessible to All

Even if you’ve never stepped foot into one of its facilities, the YMCA has touched your life.

The largest nonprofit service organization in the world, the Switzerland-based YMCA serves 64 million people in 119 countries. It’s the institution that spurred the invention of basketball, volleyball and racquetball, and became a visible promoter of swimming lessons and water safety. The concept of physical fitness has been shaped by the YMCA and its advocacy. But the association has also been a place of religious study, higher education, senior care, humanitarianism and — importantly — youth development.

The YMCA of Greater Richmond is one of 27 independent YMCA organizations in Virginia and 886 nationwide. As a federated organization, Rogers says, the YMCA of Greater Richmond adheres to the parent company’s brand standards, “but there are no dictates on the programs that we run. … It’s more of a partnership than a parent organization telling us what to do or driving the agenda.”

Every branch in Richmond’s association has its own advisory board. Richmond’s Y has 200 full-time and 1,200 part-time employees — down from pre-pandemic numbers. It also had 3,240 volunteers in 2020, which was down sharply from 8,000 in a normal year. “We’ll continue to add staff and volunteers as needed,” Rogers vows.

“What has evolved over the years is the inclusion, being accessible to everyone,” says Puryear, a Mills E. Godwin High School graduate who practically grew up at the Tuckahoe Y and has worked for the association for 25 years. “And I don’t just mean affordable. Are we being accessible in reaching everyone? We can help you get to the Y, even if you don’t have transportation; we can make the rate you’re paying affordable according to what your income is. The results are that more people are enjoying the Y, and it’s a diverse group more reflective of what Richmond looks like today.”

A Long Local History

The Young Men’s Christian Association was formed in London in 1844 as an organization strictly for young Protestant men. It was started by George Williams, an employee of a fabric shop who gathered 11 coworkers for a spiritual and intellectual alternative to the city’s taverns and gambling dens.

Thanks to savvy 19th-century marketing — most prominently through London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, which saw millions of visitors — Williams’ low-key religious salon was an idea that spread across the world. Boston established its YMCA in 1851, and the first “colored” Y was started — unofficially at first — in Washington, D.C., in 1853.

“December 19, 1854, is recognized as the first day of the Richmond YMCA,” writes Edward Crews in his 2004 book, “The Richmond YMCA: 150 Years of Innovation and Service for Central Virginia.” “On this date, a meeting was held in the lecture rooms of St. Paul’s Church where the constitution and by-laws were drafted and presented.”

Peter V. Daniel was elected as the club’s first president, and the group’s headquarters was established in 1855 in the Goddin Building at Bank and 11th streets facing Capitol Square. The space was small, however, and the organization held its first public gatherings at St. Paul’s and other churches. The most popular aspect of the club, by all accounts, was its library, which underscores the fact that the initial appeal of the association was its mix of religious and secular pursuits.

Richmond’s was one of only two YMCAs in the South to survive the Civil War, and it’s difficult to know how it persevered, Crews writes: “Records show that the association lost everything in the 1865 fire of Richmond.”

Richmond’s YMCA tried to continue its pre-war ways of staying out of politics, “but this proved impossible,” Crews  writes. The Y became the location of the Confederate Post Office and, after the Battle of Manassas, began to forward supplies to sick and wounded soldiers from other Southern states. It also started a literacy program for troops and worked to establish three private military hospitals.

Membership grew steadily following the war, and Richmond’s YMCA built its first permanent home in 1887, at the corner of Sixth and Main streets. That was also the year that a YMCA branch serving Richmond’s African American youth was formed at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Leigh Street. It eventually became the first Black YMCA branch in the U.S. to own its own building.

From there, Richmond’s segregated YMCA system started to introduce the concept of “muscular Christianity.” It was the view that, as English lawyer and author Thomas Hughes wrote, “a man’s body is given to him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men.” In December 1891, James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, developed a new game — basketball — using an inflated ball and a peach basket.

In 1910, at the same time a location for railway workers was established at Main Street Station, a new Richmond YMCA was built at Grace and Seventh streets — with an indoor pool, fitness equipment, auditorium, gymnasium, spa, bowling alleys, a barbershop, and courts for basketball and (another sport developed by YMCA instructors) volleyball.

The most significant shift for the YMCA occurred in the 1930s, according to Crews’ book. “In 1931, the YMCA eliminated all theological tests for membership and abandoned theological identification of any kind.” While women did not enjoy full membership in all YMCA branches until 1963, “the Richmond YMCA had a female presence from the beginning, and female auxiliaries were a standard feature at YMCAs across the nation.”

The current corporate office of the YMCA of Greater Richmond and the Downtown YMCA, located at Foushee and Franklin streets, was dedicated on June 28, 1942, says Lindy Bumgartner, the association’s marketing director, who adds that the YMCA’s expansion happened in spurts. In the 1970s, five branches were opened in the counties, and in the 1990s, four additional branches joined them. Expansion to Powhatan and Goochland occurred in the 2000s.

O’Neill says the Richmond Y has been a quiet but steady force for inclusion over the years, noting that in 1955, the Leigh Street YMCA joined other white branches in the new YMCA of Metropolitan Richmond association.

The segregated sides of the Y finally united in 1965, a few years before the national YMCA organization integrated. “It was a bold move considering how Virginia was at the time,” O’Neill says.

Meeting Pandemic Needs

When Gov. Ralph Northam closed public schools in March 2020, the YMCA of Greater Richmond was set to embark on a $5 million renovation of its Manchester branch and open the aquatic center in Henrico, CEO Tim Joyce, was also slated to retire, to be succeeded by Rogers.

“We got a call from the city of Richmond,” Rogers recalls. “The mayor’s office was communicating that there was going to be a problem if schools shut down. They knew there would be essential employees and also doctors and nurses who needed to go to work but needed a place for their kids. It became very clear very quickly there was going to be a need, and we were being asked to step up and fill that need.”

Quickly, Camp Hope was launched, a day care program for children of essential workers that eventually expanded to Henrico and Chesterfield. The city and the YMCA broadened their partnership last fall to include child care sites at Battery Park Church and Movement Church, buttressed by $3 million in federal CARES Act funds. “We ended up serving 500 kids in five different sites across the region,” Rogers says.

The YMCA also formed alliances with other service organizations. “We’ve found, depending on the needs, that we can be a convener with other nonprofits to make something good happen,” Puryear says. In COVID-19’s early days, there was a blood shortage on the East Coast, and the YMCA and Red Cross joined forces for a donation event, leading to nearly every branch hosting monthly drives. “There was huge food insecurity at the start of COVID,” Rogers adds. “Food banks were having trouble keeping food in stock, so we started drive-by food donations and became responsible for taking them to the smaller food banks, like Welborne United Methodist Church, near the Tuckahoe Y.”

Marjorie Stahl, 78, is a 12-year member who visits the Tuckahoe Y four days a week and participates in senior programs, both live and virtually, that integrate exercise, brain games and even bingo. “The Y is a safe place to go, first of all, but you’ve got all of this equipment to use, things to improve your body and your mind,” she says.

There’s also the social aspect. “To meet different people, to talk with them — human interaction,” she says. “Just imagine if you are in your home all day long with no one to speak to, and you can go into this environment where people say hello and ask you how you are. … Being around people at this time makes a world of difference.”

The YMCA wants to continue its many programs and has goals to build on them, Rogers says. “We’re not just opening our doors and saying, ‘These are our 16 locations, come to us,’ but actually going out to the community and integrating the Y into where our community is, whether they can get to our buildings or not. … While we can’t build a Y in every corner of Richmond, we can build new programs in those parts of the Richmond market.”

But they will be doing more with less. Membership is down at the Richmond Y, as it is for most regional YMCA organizations. More than 200 locations in the U.S. closed permanently last year.

Right now, it’s all about a return to normalcy. “Parents want their children outside running, playing and doing what kids do,” O’Neill says. “We are seeing a real return to youth sports this year.” At different age levels, children can compete in soccer, baseball, basketball, cross country, flag football, kickball and volleyball.

“The challenge is, will people want to come back?” Puryear asks. “We are not at a place where our membership was before COVID, and a lot of people and are trying to be healthy in other ways. So there is some trepidation, both about whether people will want to return and what we can do to make the Y more what they want it to be.”


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