Maturity brings wisdom, and, at the age of 150, the Y's have big plans for the new millennium.

From what ostensibly began as a Bible study group in 1844 for 12 evangelical Protestants in England, the Young Men's Christian Association has evolved into one of the largest social institutions in the United States, as well as a heavy contender internationally.

In our own country, the first Y opened its doors in Boston on Dec. 29, 1851. Today in the United States, more than 2,400 neighborhood YMCAs with approximately 600,000 volunteers serve 17.5 million members (half of them children) in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In fact, more than 33 percent of Americans have participated in a YMCA program in their lifetimes, according to the not-for-profit organization.

In addition to all of the YMCA's social and charity work (for instance, the Y provides low-cost daycare for 450,000-plus), many of America's most valued traditions began at these institutions. According to YMCA of the USA, Y's invented and/or pioneered basketball, volleyball, racquetball, softball, and even modern in-door swimming and filtered pools. The first professional football game featured a YMCA team.

To commemorate these and other milestones, the YMCA will host its 150th Anniversary General Assembly on June 28 through July 1 in New Orleans. Volunteers and staff from all across the continent will converge in the Big Easy for the largest meeting in the history of the YMCA in North America — and they won't just be celebrating the past. They'll also be focusing on the future.

With such tremendous growth and outreach on the Y's part over the past 150 years, what's the organization going to do for its encore? After all, this new century presents unique challenges for an institution committed to building stronger families and communities. Family and social structures are becoming more fragmented, leaving many feeling isolated. And children, who need the most structure, are often without a guiding hand.

“Hillary Clinton coined the phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ The YMCA is going to need to play a more important role with children and families,” says Jim Letts, CEO of the Greater Waterbury YMCA in Connecticut.

“The YMCA is one of the few places a family can go every day to be together. I don't see life getting easier, by measuring the past 100 years. It will probably get more complicated. The YMCA needs to be there for the wayward teenager, and people with problems. It needs to be the center of the community where two-parent and single-parent families can go. The YMCA will need to invest more resources in childcare.”

And more resources in children, period. That's why the Y is collaborating with Minnesota's Search Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization with a mission to advance the well-being of adolescents and children.

The institute conducted a research project that identified the 40 elements critical to a child's mental, social and physical development. These elements (from parental support to safe environments) clearly show the important roles that families, schools, congregations, neighborhoods, youth organizations, and others in the community play in shaping young people's lives.

“We live in a very different community than we faced in the 1850s,” says Ken Gladish, Ph.D., the national executive director for YMCA of the USA. He points out that no single organization can meet the needs of children. His hope is that the Y's social work will become part of a community-based effort to benefit children.

Besides the challenge of trying to connect with the community's children and families, the Y's have the nation's collective physical health weighing heavily on their minds as well. Childhood (and adult) obesity is at an all-time high, and as the baby boomer generation ages, there will be an increased need for older adult programming. Furthermore, teens are vastly marketed to by the U.S. media, yet are often ignored by many social institutions.

Kristen Wilde, communications manager for the Eastern Metro Atlanta YMCA, believes that Y's can help people of all ages and abilities. “The Y is a cornerstone in the community,” she states. “We're inclusive. We don't exclude anybody…. Our focus is on building strong kids, families and communities.”

The young and elderly, in particular, feel at home in Y's, according to Dr. Wayne Westcott, the fitness research director for the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass. “I have respect for them, but the major fitness chains, the majority of the [members] would be young, fit, men and women,” he says. “The YMCA still addresses to a greater degree children, the middle-aged and elderly — as well as our work with the handicapped — than the average fitness club.”

Dave Cason, the executive vice president/COO of the YMCA of Metro Los Angeles, agrees with Westcott's sentiments. “We've worked with large segments of the population that weren't typically addressed by other institutions,” he says.

Cason adds that Y's take a more holistic approach to well-being. “We're not only emphasizing physical health, but also social, emotional, spiritual and mental health,” he says.

“The YMCAs always try to provide a comfortable and supportive environment for those who want to get into a healthy lifestyle,” Cason continues. “Very large portions of our society are inactive…and YMCA programs aim to impact those groups. If they were being impacted by other institutions, there wouldn't be such large groups [still inactive].”

While the YMCAs are looking to help the community at large, they are also looking at ways to improve themselves. For instance, the “George Program,” a high-tech project designed to offer top-scale communication and computing to Y's across the country, ran aground, and now the YMCA of the USA is exploring other options.

“Though we have recently ventured into [technology] unsuccessfully, I think the national organization realizes we lag in this area and will need to spearhead projects that are effective in taking us into the 21st century,” says Letts of the Greater Waterbury YMCA.

To address technology and other issues, a task force of YMCA leaders — with input from more than 4,500 stakeholders (e.g., focus groups of Y CEOs, staff members, volunteers, retired Y executives, former National Board chairs and more) nationwide — has developed a strategy over the course of the last two years. Endorsed in September of 2000 by the National Board of the National Council of YMCAs, this strategy (called “One for the Movement”) is designed to enhance the Y's service-delivery structure in the new millennium.

Moral Obligations

Gladish laid the groundwork for the strategy in a speech that he gave to the national staff last June. “Unless we change for the circumstances that we now face, we will have prepared our organization for the last third of the last century instead of the next third of the new one…,” he said. “[W]e have a moral obligation, if we really believe in this movement called the YMCA, to prepare it for the next generation and the generations which will follow it.”

This is the reason why “One for the Movement” was devised. “The YMCA of the USA is right now engaged in a reorganization of how the YMCA of the USA delivers support and technical services to the local associations of the YMCA,” Gladish says.

The movement will emphasize four areas: networking, movement advancement, leadership development and association resources. By focusing on these areas of the organization, the YMCA hopes to revitalize itself for the new century.

At the same time, the strategy can bring consistency to an organization that, as Westcott points out, has “no real national governing body.” “YMCA's biggest strength and its biggest weakness is every YMCA is autonomous,” he says.

“You can go to one facility and it's great, but then you could go to another and it's not so good,” he continues. “If you're a good Y, [the autonomy] is good because there is no minimum standard. The sky's the limit. But if you're a bad Y…”

Since “One for the Movement” emphasizes networking, the strategy will encourage the best Y's to share their expertise with others. This type of networking will be part of the Y event in New Orleans. And, by celebrating 150 years of accomplishments, the gathering will strive to revitalize YMCA volunteers and staff.

Cause for Celebration

“It isn't very often an organization has the opportunity to say they have been around 150 years and growing, but we can!” enthuses Letts. “It is going to be an opportunity to meet YMCA professionals, volunteers and families from across the country.

“One of the great things about a conference this large is the sharing of ideas and what is going on at different YMCAs. Everyone who goes is going to come away energized and reinvigorated with a more positive attitude about the organization they work for and the meaning of the work they do.”

And before they leave, they'll also enjoy themselves. The 150th Anniversary General Assembly will include such festivities as a tribute concert by Peter, Paul and Mary; a benefit concert by Ray Charles; speaking engagements by Peter Jennings, Art Linkletter and Fred Rogers (yes, that's Mr. Rogers, a Y alumnus), among others; more than 30 workshops; and a host of other festivities and events, including a large gala party.

“As I said before, this is going to be a big celebration and it should be!” Letts says.

Not only will the attendees celebrate, but they'll also discuss plans for the new millennium. The YMCA hopes to play a prominent role in the lives of kids, teens, older adults, the deconditioned and disabled, and the community in general. In fact, the greatest challenge the Y's may face in this century is just trying to be everything, for everyone, all at once.

“Keeping up for the demand for the YMCA services, as well as continuing to respond to the changing program needs,” may very well be the Y's biggest obstacles, Gladish says.

“If there were any negative thing I could say, [it's] that the YMCA has tried to do too much,” adds Letts, “which is a great backhanded compliment.”