YMCA: Success Stories from Across America

American Icons, Featured Article, Traditions
on January 4, 2014
Courtesy of the YMCA of the USA

Antoinette Chabilal, 55, had been a yo-yo dieter for more than a decade when she literally limped last March into her local YMCA in Boston, Massachusetts, desperate for help. Overweight, her blood pressure high, and her right knee aching with a torn meniscus, she was discouraged about having to move into her mother’s handicap-accessible home because she no longer could climb three flights of stairs to her own apartment.

Ten months later, Chabilal is 40 pounds lighter, her blood pressure is normal, her knee is stronger, and she continues her fitness journey by exercising four to five times a week at the same YMCA. She’s also moved back into her own place, and her entire outlook has changed.

The transformation would not have been possible, she says, without the supportive staff and resources of the Roxbury YMCA, especially trainer Christopher Pegues, 40. At the outset, he listened to Chabilal’s personal health story and designed an effective exercise program around her injuries. He also gave her guidance about healthful eating and, whenever she craved ice cream, he was just a phone text away to remind her about her long-term goals.

“No one has ever helped me before the way that Chris did,” says Chabilal, a hospital nurse. “I no longer think of myself as handicapped. I couldn’t have done it without my new family from the Roxbury YMCA.”

Chabilal’s turnaround happened just three miles from the site of the nation’s first YMCA, and hers is among tens of thousands of success stories each year at 2,700 YMCAs across the United States. For 163 years, the nonprofit organization has offered programs and services designed to help people build a healthier “spirit, mind and body.” To accomplish that lofty goal, its programs and services promote a healthy lifestyle, youth development and social responsibility.

“The YMCA is more than just a place to get healthy; it’s where you go to feel connected,” says Neil Nicoll, 67, president of YMCA of the USA, headquartered in Chicago. “From the beginning, the YMCA has strengthened communities. It’s our timeless mission.”

Safe haven

The Young Men’s Christian Association was started in 1844 in London, England, to provide a faith-based refuge for young men trying to navigate the city’s social turmoil and temptations. Thomas Valentine Sullivan, a retired sea captain working as a marine missionary, brought the organization to the United States and in 1851 established the nation’s first YMCA in Boston’s Old South Church, creating a home away from home for sailors and merchants.

“At the time, young men engaged in the shipping trade had left behind the traditional safety nets of neighbors, family and church,” says YMCA archivist Ryan Bean, 33, of Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Free time and spare change frequently led to troubles. Thomas Sullivan wanted to create an institution to safeguard them.”

While early programs centered on Bible study and prayer, the organization eventually moved into holistic development of the individual. Its overarching mission was “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.” Within decades, YMCAs were being established across the nation, offering safe and affordable housing for young men moving from rural areas to growing cities.

“Someone would hear about the mission and values and would want that for their community,” says Bean, adding that “the growth of the YMCA followed [construction of] the railroad.”

A formal national YMCA structure was forged during the 1880s, though each facility remained independent and tailored programs to meet the unique needs of its community. Rebranded as “the Y” in 2010, the organization continues that model and, in the process, touches the lives of 21 million Americans, including 9 million youth, in 10,000 communities.

“Other than inside an emergency room, you’ll not find a more diverse population,” Nicoll says of the Y’s welcoming environment. “We offer financial assistance to individuals and families who cannot afford membership and truly believe in the magic that happens when people give back. It’s the genesis for everything we do.”

Ellen Duffy, 46, is a model member. She began going to Boston’s West Roxbury Y as a new mom, taking advantage of free baby-sitting while she exercised. As her family grew, so did their visits to the Y. Her son and two daughters attended the Y’s nursery school and today they use its wellness center. In 2011, she began serving on her Y’s board of directors.

“I’m passionate about its cause,” she explains. “People’s lives improve and change here, and I wanted to be a part of giving people the opportunity to grow.”

Strengthening community

More than just a fitness center, the Y offers other beneficial programs such as job training, educational classes, sports and recreation, military outreach and childcare.

Sabrina Ruiz, 17, has taken advantage of many offerings as a member of California’s Weingart East Los Angeles Y, where she first took swim lessons in 2005. After her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she and her siblings began attending the Y’s after-school programs. “My mom wanted my sister and brother and I to be in a safe place where we could thrive,” she says.

Sabrina took jazz, ballet, and hip-hop classes. She later became a junior lifeguard, led arts and crafts classes in the Y nursery school, and joined the Y’s Youth in Government program. “I credit this program with giving me the confidence to express my opinions,” she says. “Now I want to do something where I can speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.”

Ask any member, Nicoll says, and each has a unique Y story to share.

“About 70 percent of Americans have had some experience at a Y during their lifetime,” he says. “Our history is founded on Christian principles—principles that still guide us. We’ve been able to touch so many and will continue our mission to build strong communities one person at a time.”