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National and mid-Michigan YMCA’s forge ahead as community resource during pandemic

Hikaru Kudo / WKAR-MSU
Hikaru Kudo / WKAR-MSU

Operating community centers and fitness clubs were challenging during COVID-19, but YMCA’s innovated and their members are returning to play and learn.

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Going to a local YMCA to swim or family activities is a staple across the country. And like everything else, Y’s have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA or simply Y) was one of many businesses forced to innovate due to COVID-19. As one of YMCA’s main purposes is to serve the youth in the community, the State Alliance of Michigan YMCAs reported that they had a successful turnout this past summer.

The YMCA served over 20,000 kids, at 76 sites, throughout the country with academic and social-emotional support.

“Y’s are the largest provider nationally of services for kids when they are out of school,” Fran Talsma, the executive director of the State Alliance of Michigan YMCA’s, said. “So we had a great summer. Our programs were fully subscribed, we did have reduced capacity in some of our programs, but we served.”

Talsma said it was important for the YMCA to emphasize mental health as much as academic support.

“So many kids are emerging out of this pandemic with this dire need of mental health help, so we braided those principles into our programs to prepare them for success,” Talsma said.

When Michigan schools were virtual, due to the pandemic, the YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing teamed up with the Lansing School District to provide “remote learning outreach centers” for students.

Jeff Scheibel, the president and CEO of YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing, said that while some classrooms were forced to shut down due to COVID-19, the YMCA remained open.

“There were a couple of classrooms that got shut down, but the Y never did,” Scheibel said. “We never had one COVID-related instance as we were opening back up for workouts as well as our group classes.”

As the YMCAs have been able to support youth in different ways than they have before, another question looms. Are members coming back to the YMCA?

In a recent poll Talsma conducted with YMCA’s across Michigan, she found most YMCAs hovered around 65% of membership level of that prior to the pandemic.

One YMCA reported a membership return of 80%.

However, some YMCAs were forced to shut down.

In Mid-Michigan, the downtown Lansing branch did not reopen.

“Through extensive research, we couldn’t get a really good time frame of recovery of downtown to be able to operate and reopen that facility,” Scheibel said. “We were able to accommodate members in our downtown location at our other locations.”

Schiebel also noted that the YMCA had help from their partners.

“We did this not alone,” Schiebel said. “Out of COVID we need to realize… the partnerships we developed over the years became so critical to serve the communities the way they deserve to be served so we have really leaned into partnerships.”

These partnerships are a major reason why the YMCA has been able to return to mostly normal operations.

The State Alliance of YMCA reported that many members were “desperate to come back.” Since each YMCA organization is owned and operated by a local non-profit entity, each have different COVID-19 policies.

For the Mid-Michigan YMCA’s under the YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing, masks are required for staff and youth - but optional for members.

“We’ll have a mixed bag of members coming in, both masked and unmasked based on their own comfort level and their preferences,” Schiebel said.

“For those who want to social distance, we definitely provide that opportunity,” Casey Thompson, the vice president of operations at YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing, said. “We support those who feel they want a little bit extra space, just by the design of our layout of all of our fitness equipment.”

The YMCA is not just a place for youth programs or physical activity.

Scheibel recalled witnessing a member finding his friend on the first day they reopened.

“I remember interfacing with one of our senior members who came to the Y right when we opened, and one person, he was going around the building looking for his friends,” Scheibel said. “I think what that reminded me of is the relational power of the work that we do in our communities… We bring people together.”

While the YMCA has arguably hopped over their largest “hump” to recovery, Thompson admitted that it is a long path ahead.

“As we benchmark our directional change, every day we get a little bit better, every week we get a little bit better,” Thompson said. “However, we do know that we are going to be on a couple year recovery.”

As the YMCA continues its recovery, COVID-19 made one thing clear.

“We’re more than just a gym,” Scheibel said.

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