YMCA History

Volunteer founded and volunteer led, the YMCA was established in London, England, in 1844 by George Williams, a draper's shop assistant, to give young men an alternative to life on the streets.

In 1851, Thomas Sullivan, a retired sea captain and lay missionary, started the first U.S. YMCA in Boston. From there, YMCAs spread rapidly across America. Some were started to serve specific groups such as railroad and factory workers, as well as African Americans, Native Americans and recent immigrants. After World War II, women and girls were admitted to full membership and participation.

In 1881 Dr. Luther Gulick revolutionized the American approach to health and fitness with the idea that man’s well-being depends on a unity of body, mind and spirit. The same year, Boston YMCA staffer Robert J. Roberts coins the term―body building and develops exercise classes that anticipate today’s fitness workouts. 

In 1885, Camp Dudley was started, America’s first known Y summer camp, at Orange Lake, N.Y. Its aim was to help kids build skills and grow in self-reliance while making new friends. Over the years, the Y created more family and year-round camps and expanded the focus to include environmental stewardship, academics, arts and leadership.

Two years later years later, in 1887, the same year that the first train came to Santa Barbara, the YMCA was formed in Santa Barbara and Ventura. Since then, Santa Barbara, Ventura and the YMCA have grown and changed. Originally headquartered on the second floor of a downtown office building, the Santa Barbara Y offered fellowship, music and exercise programs to the community.  In 1910 construction began on the first official Y building in Santa Barbara, on the corner of Chapala and Carrillo Streets. The facility opened in 1912 and offered gymnasium classes, wrestling, boxing, handball, summer camps, hikes, athletics, swimming, and a variety of clubs and social services.

Since then, the Channel Islands YMCA has grown to include to six health and fitness facilities, a Youth and Family Services branch, and more than 20 child care locations.

The YMCA movement in America has become the largest not-for-profit community-based organization in the nation, serving 20 million Americans. The nation's more than 2,500 YMCAs unite men, women and children of all ages, faiths, backgrounds, abilities, and income levels. YMCAs are also at work abroad, serving more than 45 million people in more than 120 countries.

YMCA Inventions

Two major sports, basketball and volleyball, were born at the YMCA. A YMCA instructor created the first group swimming lesson, and the Y was the first to establish certification programs for lifesaving, swimming and aquatic instruction. The YMCA also pioneered and greatly expanded summer camping, night school, vocational counseling, adult education, college student services, and junior college.

YMCA World Service workers were forerunners of Peace Corps volunteers. The YMCA assisted in the formation of other major voluntary groups such as Boy Scouts, Camp Fire, and the USO.

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