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April 2006
Connect, Engage, Enhance.
By Susanne Deitzel

By all measures, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte enjoys considerable success. Since its founding in 1874 with 23 members, the Greater Charlotte group of YMCAs has grown to the eighth largest in the country, and with 152,372 members carries the second largest membership in the U.S. One out of every six residents in a YMCA’s service area is a member.

For 2005, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte received $10.9 million in charitable contributions, and it has a volunteer roster numbering in the thousands, including powerful business and community leaders and members of the venerable founding families of Charlotte. The organization also boasts a whopping 576 board members over its 15 branches and 2 camps, overseen by a centralized, metropolitan board of directors.

In the past three years, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte has raised over $50 million dollars in its ‘Promises for the Future’ comprehensive campaign to augment Y outreach projects and fund new and renovated facilities, career and literacy services, scholarships, community partnerships and new program initiatives.

It is clear that the YMCA is knitted into the very fabric of our community, impacting every age group with a variety of programs and activities, as a community leader in health and wellness, child care, youth sports and as a strong provider of teen services, literacy classes, ESL classes, job training, GED and several social services.

 

Culling a Community

The YMCA movement was founded in London in 1844 by George Williams and a group of like-minded young Christian men, drawn to big cities by the Industrial Revolution, and concerned by the lack of healthy activities for young men in large cities. The alternatives were often taverns, brothels, and other temptations to sin. The organization expanded across Europe and later to the United States in 1851 in Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1855 delegates from YMCAs convened in Paris, France, where they adopted a common mission for all present and future national YMCAs with a motto that “...that they may all be one.” The focus of the Paris conference was almost purely individual – to help young men to “build a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” YMCAs in the United States and Canada use the three-sided red triangle – symbolizing these concepts – as part of their logo.

Today, YMCAs are present in 119 countries. Collectively, YMCAs are the largest not-for-profit community service organizations in America, serving 18.3 million people of all faiths, races, ages and incomes. YMCAs are at the heart of community life in neighborhoods and towns across the nation. With their longtime emphasis on values,

YMCAs are well positioned as leaders in building strong kids, strong families and strong communities.

YMCAs work to teach and demonstrate on a daily basis the four core values of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. These values are evident in all of the Y’s programs.

 

More Than Just Fitness

By fostering fitness for mind, body and spirit, the YMCA’s support enabled it to pioneer facilities outfitted with the latest exercise equipment and fitness programs. The Greater Charlotte YMCA continues to be one of the best equipped YMCAs in the community and the nation.

In the late 1970s, however, the YMCA focus began to evolve from its core of fellowship and fitness, adding youth development programs, camps, and health and wellness programs designed to educate and take care of its membership. Now, just past the cusp of a new millennium, the leadership of this historical organization seeks to keep community building, relationship building, and servant leadership a primary focus of the organization.

Explains President Andy Calhoun, “From a few men playing basketball or running the track, the YMCA developed into a place where everyone felt comfortable to come for their family and fitness needs. That’s when we saw fitness evolve into health and wellness. Now we are at a juncture where health and wellness extends not only to the individual, but also to communities. By virtue of the fact that people feel a very natural inclination and real comfort building relationships at our YMCAs, it becomes a logical outlet to address personal and community needs.”

Calhoun cites an aging baby boomer population, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and access to health care as driving forces for its wellness programs. With the commoditization of fitness – a gym on every corner, a Pilates DVD or personal trainer in every other living room, the YMCA wants to pull the fitness seeker into its communities, by promising a better payoff. It offers more than how to shed a few pounds or shave some points off of your cholesterol. It wants members and the community to use it as a tool to achieve stronger, closer knit, more diverse and more productive relationships that will answer the needs of its communities – in real time.

Calhoun adds, “People come to the YMCA for excellent services and programs. I believe they stay for the relationships and the desire to be part of a community.”

Calhoun can attest to this personally. He has been associated with the organization since 1972 when he worked at what is now the Dowd YMCA branch as an assistant youth director. He then became the first executive director of the Harris branch, followed by his appointment to COO in 1994. Calhoun served as interim CEO after the unexpected passing of Harry Brace, and became president and CEO in March of 2000.

So Calhoun has been all-Y, all the time, for 33 years. To what does he attribute this staying power?

“We are not an organization that simply follows the ‘business’ of providing services. At the YMCA, the objective is not to build a location where we can get the most members; it is to build a location where there is the greatest need. By reaching beyond traditional business paradigms, together we can very creatively use our human and capital resources to address the needs of the community.”

Continues Calhoun, “As those needs change, we develop new, even more intentional strategies that help us grow in our mission of serving all. We seek a social, cultural, demographic, and economic balance that is dictated to us by the fabric of our communities.”

 

A Multifaceted Organization

In fact, the structure of the Greater Charlotte YMCA is designed to suit this very purpose. While large-scale collaborations such as those with Carolinas HealthCare System, the United Way and the Charlotte Bobcats are   managed centrally, each of the 17 Greater Charlotte YMCA branches has its own board of managers and its own local collaborations to suit the community. This empowers each branch with greater autonomy and a reflexive response to partnership opportunities, in addition to increasing the relevance and inclusivity of each branch

The 556 volunteer leaders are accountable to the Greater Charlotte YMCA’s executive volunteer leadership, chaired from March 2004 through March 2006, by financier Jim Morgan, formerly of Wachovia and Interstate/ Johnson Lane leadership. These two formidable assemblies filter communications through what Calhoun calls “the mission lens.”

He explains, “We get into some pretty strong dialogue when discussing how to best carry out our mission. It is not a one or two man show, but a large pool of ideas from which we draw as many as possible. The thing that makes it work (apart from a lot of meetings,) is a firm and resolute commitment for the good of our communities, and collaboration the likes of which you don’t see many other places.”

“We have 20 or 30 strong leaders in a room with different talents, and a common purpose. They have already built strong, positive relationships, which functions to build unity around issues. Add to that the satisfaction of leaving the ‘day job’ where bottom lines and numbers define success, and working in a place where the crux of the mission is leading with the right heart, and anything becomes possible.”

Greater Charlotte YMCA Chairman Jim Morgan offers, “The YMCA is a major beneficiary of Charlotte’s rare and exuberant volunteer spirit. There’s no grandstanding, no figureheads, no controversies. There is an extraordinary amount of giving, of resources, time, and capital, and the spirit in which these things are given is genuine.”

This family of YMCAs is characterized by a diverse group of people, and it intentionally mixes them together to build relationships between communities. Under a program called Y-Communities, Charlotte’s YMCA branches are assigned partnerships, with each branch responsible for its sister branch.

“For example,” offers Calhoun, “the firmly established Dowd YMCA is partnered with the Stratford Richardson YMCA on West Boulevard. They share resources, programs and some jobs between branches. We have seen extraordinary bonds created between children involved in the program together, which lays a foundation for their future. Plus, the children’s relationships bring the parents together over a common passion, which nourishes their understanding and appreciation of one another. This is how this network flourishes and succeeds.”

Jim Morgan says that one such partnership was responsible for one of his fondest memories at the organization. “In one partnership, a smaller, financially challenged Y was in desperate need of help with its facilities. Its stronger, very successful partner didn’t just offer to help raise money – its board, out of the blue, made a large six-figure gift to its partner. No repayment. No terms. This is truly symbolic of the Y spirit.”

 

Connect, Engage, Enhance, Build

YMCA programs and  its staff are the vehicles by which the YMCA  mission gets delivered.   Says Jim Morgan, “I wish the community of Charlotte could see the energy and behind-the-scenes work that goes on at the YMCA  of Greater Charlotte. Its accomplishments are measured by the quality of improvements that happen on a community level.”

For example, Starfish Academy, a childhood literacy initiative in collaboration with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, helps first and second graders to improve reading skills. While many embrace the feel-good nature of this endeavor, what citizens might not realize is how it affects their pocketbook. To send a child to Starfish Academy costs $1,000 for the summer, but to re-educate that child by repeating a grade costs $6,300. Add to that the attention and talent these children receive from committed corporate mentors, and the benefits become immeasurable.

Carolinas Healthcare System sought the YMCA for another collaboration called “LiveWell Carolinas.” Conceived by CHS President Michael Tarwater to combat what he considers a looming crisis in healthcare, the program seeks to proactively involve corporate leadership and its employees in improving their health to avert financially devastating illnesses. As healthcare costs are projected to double in the next six years, some estimates suggest that for every $1 spent on employee wellness, there will be a $3 to $5 return.

Now in its pilot stage, LiveWell’s major tenets are providing onsite corporate wellness programs, nutritional counseling and weight management, educating about active lifestyles, and major lifestyle choices to contribute to wellness. The Greater Charlotte YMCAs have installed health centers in major Y branches to impart these messages on a variety of different levels. “We have a nurse employed by CHS and the YMCA to act as an intermediary between physician-referred care and our program offerings. A member can bring a doctor’s orders to the YMCA and we will try to help build a plan to address the concerns within our area of expertise,” says Calhoun. “We can help with exercise plans, nutrition, rehabilitation, health screenings, blood pressure monitoring; in other words a host of things that empowers a person to feel responsible for his or her health.”

Just as LiveWell Carolinas is  instructive of employee health concerns, the YMCA’s Strengthening Families program addresses family concerns. Serving 270 families with children, Strengthening Families provides the support of licensed social workers, as well as access to healthcare, housing, childcare and employment training. “The ultimate goal,” says Calhoun, “is to take families from dependency to self-sufficiency by maximizing all the bridges to the community we can offer.”

Local camps, scholarship programs, free or reduced-fee Y-Pathways membership, career training such as adult literacy, GED and ESL programs, all continue to strive toward the vision statement that took over 18 months to pin down: “to connect and engage people to enhance lives and build community.”

While the YMCA of Greater Charlotte benefits from driven, highly-visible corporate personalities, both Morgan and Calhoun are quick to point out that the spirit of its success resides deep in the heart of every volunteer, donor, member, and staff member along its considerable sphere of influence.

Concludes Jim Morgan, “Every YMCA meeting we go to across the country, we can count on being pulled aside countless times to be asked, “How are you able to do what you do?”

“My answer is simply that the history of our volunteerism, and its quality and commitment, is simply unparalleled. And, as a result, we have the happy duty of reaching out and positively shaping the lives of individuals, families, children and communities in the true spirit of servant leadership.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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