YMCA . . . Connecting to Community

by Aaron Wilson

By Jennifer Poff Cooper


During the past 143 years, the YMCA at Virginia Tech has served the New River Valley with diverse programs to enhance the area’s quality of life. The YMCA itself has a rich history ~ founded in 1844 in London to provide low-cost housing and wholesome recreation for rural young men – and later, young women – journeying to cities to find work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.
Early in the 20th century, there was an emphasis on evangelical Christianity as well as promotion of good sportsmanship in athletic contests in gyms and swimming pools. Later, the YMCA became more interdenominational and concerned with promoting morality and good citizenship rather than a distinctive interpretation of Christianity. Today, the worldwide YMCA is focused on inspiring youth and their families to exercise and be healthy.
The YMCA movement is organized by national associations in more than 120 countries. The YMCA at Virginia Tech is a member of Y-USA. While some aspects such as branding are consistent (for example, they all carry the Y logo), each YMCA is open to meet the needs of its community in unique ways. The YMCA at Virginia Tech started in 1873, six months after the college opened. The organization performed almost all non-academic functions of the university, which were eventually given over to Student Affairs. The relationship evolved, and the YMCA at Virginia Tech is a registered student organization with the university.
With it being a “campus Y,” the local YMCA has never had living facilities, gyms or swimming pools. “Our mission,” explains long-time board member Jim Lawrence, “is to create opportunities for student leadership, enrichment and community.” Several themes are woven through the Y’s programs. Paramount is sustainability. Ytoss is its largest sustainability initiative. Each year, volunteers collect gently-used items during student move-out and make them available for sale during student move-in on campus. Ytoss has diverted more than 100 tons of gently used household items from the waste stream, engaged more than 1,300 community volunteers and generated some $60,000 to support YMCA student programs.
From flowers to vegetables, the community gardens provide a place for sustainable food systems as the public works together on raised beds, the Roper Solar Greenhouse, perennial gardens and community garden plots. The Thrift Shop is a popular second-hand store that provides a low-cost shopping alternative as well as a wonderful way to relieve the landfill burden by recycling usable goods. It also works with area non-profits to provide items to those experiencing financial difficulties. One hundred percent of the proceeds go back into the community.
Another “reduce, reuse, recycle” event is the annual October Book Fair. As learning is an important component, the Open University is a continuing education program that offers a wide variety of classes from pottery and salsa dancing to foreign languages and outdoor grilling. Along with these focal points come volunteer opportunities. Through the YMCA at Virginia Tech’s many student-led community service programs, volunteers can work with kids, special needs individuals and low-income families or seniors. Whether desiring a one-time volunteer opportunity for a group or a long-term commitment as an individual, volunteers can count on the Y to find the right fit.
The most popular program depends on whom you ask. “If you ask the community,” Lawrence relates, “probably the Thrift Shop. If you ask the students, then the numerous opportunities to gain professional leadership experience through our campus programs is your answer.” Most of its funding comes from the Thrift Shop operations, donations and certain fundraising events such as the annual Craft Fair each November.
The YMCA at Virginia Tech has no plans to slow down. There are several initiatives in the planning stages including a diabetes prevention program and one to help children maintain academic progress over the summer. “We are always on the lookout for unfilled needs in the community or on campus where we can apply our experience and expertise to fill a gap and provide a service,” Lawrence adds. Note: Joel Goodhart, operations manager, also contributed information for this article.

Jennifer Poff Cooper is a New River Valley freelance writer and frequent contributor to New River Valley Magazine.

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