The history of the ‘Y’

As a new contributor to Community Voices, I look forward to sharing information on the history of the YMCA along with our mission, goals and impact the ‘Y’ makes in our community.

For most of us, the YMCA is perceived as a fitness club, a place to swim or as popularized by the Village People a place where you can stay, get yourself clean and have a good meal. What is lesser known is that YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association, a nonprofit community service organization, which celebrated 170 years of service this summer.

The YMCA got its start in London back in 1844 when a 22-year-old department store owner named George Williams along with 11 friends were concerned about the negative influences affecting young men. They started the YMCA as a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking to escape the hazards of life on the streets of industrialized London.

Seven years later, a retired sea captain and marine missionary named Thomas Sullivan saw a similar need for sailors and merchants, which lead to the formation of the first U.S.-based YMCA at the Old South Church in Boston. The same church made famous by Paul Revere back in 1775.

Early on, the YMCA was an entirely volunteer-led organization and to this day community volunteers are essential to the successful operation of a YMCA. Everything from board leadership, program coaches, workers for maintenance and grounds projects and fundraising campaigners keep the YMCA operating and fiscally sound.

From the beginning, the YMCA has been at the forefront of community and social service. In 1853, the first ‘Y’ for African Americans was founded in Washington D.C. A few years later, the first known ESL (English as a Second Language) class was held at the Cincinnati YMCA for German immigrants.

In the late 1860s, the YMCA began providing affordable lodging. This trend grew to the point of YMCA’s operating more rooms than any hotel chain in the 1930’s. Notable figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andy Rooney, Dan Rather and Malcolm X all lived at the ‘Y’ early in their careers.

Today’s ‘Y’ continues to meet the needs of our community, combating chronic disease through the ‘Y’ Diabetes Prevention Program. The medical outcomes and financial cost of Diabetes are staggering.

The YMCA has worked with the CDC to develop curriculum, which is taught to small groups at the local level by trained lifestyle coaches. Approximately 30 percent of the population is pre-diabetic, but only 10 percent of these individuals are aware of the risk.

Our mission over the next decade is to both educate individuals and lower the prevalence of this crippling disease, strengthening the health of the community we serve.