This story was originally published in the Oct/Nov 2012 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Like millions of Americans, Scott Rix grew up at the YMCA. He learned to swim at the Y, played basketball at the Y, and created some of his fondest memories with his dad on the Y camping adventures. Fifty years, four kids, and several corporate job relocations later, Rix credits the Y with providing a consistent place for his family to connect with the community.
“The Y provides a supportive environment for families and individuals and is an important foundation for the community,” says Rix, board member of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga. “No matter what city my family lived in, there was always a Y for us to be involved with, and it has been a great place for my kids to grow up in a Christian environment.”
Rix also credits the Y with saving his life last year when he suffered a stroke in the parking lot of the downtown branch as he walked in for his daily workout. A fellow member noticed Rix’s altered behavior and alerted a Y staff member who took immediate action by calling an ambulance. If Rix had not been in the right place at the right time, he would not be here today.
“The Y has, literally, saved my life,” says Rix. “I often refer to my experience with the Y as the circle of life. The Y has been there for me since my childhood, building a solid foundation for my family and supporting me through my recovery last year.”
A COMMUNITY MISSION
Responding to the needs of the community in an environment built on Christian principles has been core to the YMCA’s mission since it was founded in London, England in 1844. The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) movement came to the U.S just a few years later when the first Y opened in Boston in 1851. Over the last century and a half, the Y has grown nationally to serve more than 10,000 communities, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga is one of the oldest social service organizations in the city, serving more than 37,000 people annually in nine countries in Tennessee and North Georgia.
“The Y has existed from its very foundation to respond to the needs of the community,” says Rick Madison, Chief Operating Officer for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga. “The Y is a mission-based organization, and we are committed to our community, our members, and a strong set of Christian and family values.”
The Y is most widely known for its fitness facilities, swim program, summer camp, youth sports, family programs, preschool, and childcare services, which have been the cornerstone of the organization for decades. The Y is unique because of its commitment to serving all in the community.
“We will not turn away anyone based on inability to pay,” says Madison. “We offer financial assistance and scholarships to ensure everyone can have access to our programs.” As the needs of families have become more complex in recent years, the Y has evolved to address these needs in unique ways by bringing more programs directly to the community. This “Y without walls” concept has existed since its founding but has continued to grow.
“The YMCA in Chattanooga has worked strategically to offer programs outside the walls of the branches,” says Madison. “We need to continue to drive our mission into the community. Programs like Youth Empowerment Services, Y-CAP, Youth Leadership Chattanooga, Mobile Market, Mobile Fitness, and our summer feeding program all happen outside of the branches.”
AN ASSETS-BASED APPROACH
Every program the Y offers has an intentional curriculum aligned with the 40 developmental assets that the Search Institute, an independent nonprofit organization, has identified as concrete, positive experiences and qualities essential to healthy youth development. The framework for these assets is grounded in extensive research on child development, resiliency, health promotion, prevention, and public health.
“Everything we do is driven by those assets,” says Madison. “The more developmental assets children and youth have, the best chance for success in life they have and the less likely they are to engage in risky behaviors.”
One of the Y’s signature youth outreach programs building these assets, Community Impact Project (Y-CAP), is an afterschool program that works with youth who are in juvenile court or headed that way and provides tutoring, mentoring, counseling, and family sessions. Y-CAP has had a dramatic impact on children and families: of the nearly 200 youth served last year, 93 percent improved a full letter grade in math, reading, science, and language arts and less than two percent committed an offense that required further juvenile court intervention.
“The Y-CAP program is one of the most impressive programs that I have seen,” says Tripp McCallie, YMCA Director of Development. “When youth come into the program, their lives are changed, and the impact extends to the entire family. Eleven families involved got off welfare last year. It is amazing work.”
The Y is also having a profound impact in meeting the most basic needs in the community- food access for undeserved and low-income communities- as well as a mobile fitness program that encourages physical activity and a healthy lifestyle. Working with numerous funders and partners, the Y has provided more than 45,000 free, healthy meals to children and families and a mobile market broadening access to fresh produce and healthy food options. All of these programs are part of the Y’s Pioneering Healthy Communities initiative, a nationwide initiative focused on bringing communities together to find ways to improve health and well-being.
“The Y is a convener,” says Bill Rush, Director of the YMCA North River branch and Director of the Pioneering Healthy Communities initiative. “We bring people together to address issues around policy or environmental issues that have to deal with healthy eating or active living. But the Y is more than just meeting basic needs. It is about loving and caring and being a role model to kids and families and showing them kindness.”
And it is volunteers-not paid staff- that are often at the forefront of the dozens of programs the Y is offering on-site and in the community.
“Volunteers are extremely important,” says Madison. “We would not be able to operate all of our programs if it were not for the commitment and energy of the more than 900 volunteers who commit over 100,000 hours every year to support our policy and program work.”
Because the Y has been so instrumental to his life and family, Rix has given back for decades as a volunteer and has been integrally involved in the Y locally since he moved to Chattanooga 14 years ago. “As a family, we feel like we need to give back,” says Rix. “All of my kids have worked at the Y and have been involved in volunteer work.”
For Rush, whose Y career has spanned more than 26 years in Chattanooga, the Y provides an important place for all in the community to thrive.
“All of us have a need to connect, to be accepted, to be supported, and to support others,” says Rush. “And I think that is what is unique about the Y. It brings people of all backgrounds together- it connects people.”
To learn more about the YMCA’s programs and volunteer opportunities, visit www.ymcachattanooga.org or call 423.266.3766.
Photography courtesy of the YMCA