The Y’s History of Building a Better Us

Today, on June 6, the YMCA marks more than 170 years as more than a place, it is a nonprofit organization that offers programs and services designed to foster youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Here are five past notable events and achievements that demonstrate the Y’s commitment to the communities it serves:

  1. American Institutions: Celebrations such as Father’s Day, and organizations like the Peace Corps, all have their roots at the YMCA.
  2. Summer Camp: The oldest known summer camp, Camp Dudley, first opened in 1855 and countless numbers of boys and girls have since learned the skills and wonders of camping through the Y, developing critical skills and making memories along the way.
  3. Innovating & Inventing: From James Naismith’s invention of basketball to instructors creating racquetball and what would eventually become volleyball, the Y has a rich tradition in activities that are played by millions of people around the globe. One Y staffer, Robert J. Roberts, is credited with inventing the term “body building.”
  4. A Nobel Peace Prizewinner: YMCA leader John R. Mott was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for the Y’s groundbreaking role in raising global awareness and support and for the organization’s humanitarian efforts.
  5. Furthering Education: The Y is credited with spearheading the first public libraries, night school for adult education and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.
Relevant in 2018How the Y is relevant in 2018

Today, the Y serves more than 22 million people annually and offers resources at over 2,700 locations across all 50 states. Here are three ways “community” continues as the Y’s number one cause:

  1. Nurturing the Potential of Our Kids: When kids are out of school, they can face hurdles that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Nationwide, the Y helps over nine million youth to close gaps in hunger, health, learning, water safety and safe spaces while providing a place to stay healthy, build friendships, and achieve more – all while having fun! Each program demonstrates the Y’s unwavering commitment to ensuring children are on track for a successful education, especially those in underserved communities.
  2. Improving the Nation’s Health: More than a place to work out, the Y offers programs that help individuals and families improve their health and enact changes that strengthen their community and society. From working with people who are trying to find ways to improve health, but don’t know how, to preventing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and helping people recover from serious illnesses like cancer, the Y is one of the few organizations in the country with the size and influence that can effectively reach millions of people. Ys are also active in the community, creating communal gardens, increasing access to farmers markets and ensuring children have a safe route to school.
  3. Support for All Our Neighbors: As one of the nation’s leading nonprofits, the Y’s social services and volunteer programs help more than 10,000 communities nationwide. From helping newcomers and immigrants adjust to new communities to member-led community service projects through the Togetherhood program, every effort helps to make a difference.
The Y is the organization that…
  • …saw to and met the practical and spiritual needs of young men flocking to London during the Industrial Revolution.
  • …has served the military and military families in every U.S. conflict since the Civil War.
  • …inspired the formation of the U.S.O., Peace Corps and Father’s Day.
  • …met immigrants coming off the boats at Ellis Island to offer services and support in making a new life.
  • …began the first night school and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.
  • …invented group swimming lessons, basketball, volleyball and racquetball, and gave them to the community.
  • …provided quality and affordable child care when women began joining the workforce in droves.
  • …began values education at a time of social unrest.
A Historical Timeline

Some highlights of the Y since its creation include:

Anthony Bowen
Anthony Bowen

1844 – George Williams joins with 11 friends to organize the first Young Men’s Christian Association in industrialized London. The Y offers Bible study and prayer to help keep young men off the streets.

Dec. 29, 1851 – Sea captain and missionary Thomas Valentine Sullivan and six colleagues found the first Y at the Old South Church in Boston to create a safe “home away from home” for sailors and merchants.

1853 – Freed slave Anthony Bowen starts the first African-American Y in Washington, D.C. In the following decades, more Ys are established to serve diverse populations, including Asians and Native Americans in San Francisco and Flandreau, S.D., respectively.

1861 – A conference with President Abraham Lincoln leads to the recruitment of 5,000 Y volunteers who serve as surgeons, nurses and chaplains during the Civil War.

Women Playing Basketball

1881 – Dr. Luther Gulick revolutionizes 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.

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

1890s – Physical education teacher James Naismith invents basketball at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass. Later, Y instructor William Morgan blends elements of basketball, tennis and handball into a less strenuous game called “mintonette,” later known as “volley ball.”

Basketball1910 – Answering a Y campaign “to teach every man and boy in North America” to swim, George Corsan comes to the Detroit YMCA to teach the skill using unique methods: group lessons and lessons on land as a confidence builder.

1941 – During World War II, the Y, along with five other national voluntary organizations, found the United Service Organizations (USO).

1946 – On Dec. 10, Y leader John R. Mott is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the Y’s role in increasing global understanding and for its humanitarian efforts.

1975 – Y-USA and the NBA Players Association start the Youth Basketball Association (YBA) to create programs that stress abilities and teamwork over winning at any cost.

1992 – Ys conduct the first national Healthy Kids Day, emphasizing the importance of play in keeping kids healthy and happy and enhancing their developmental skills. It becomes an annual April event.

2001 – On Saturday, June 2, 1,200 Ys host 700 YMCA World’s Largest Run™ events in the country’s first synchronized run/walk across all U.S. time zones. The event celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Y in America and highlights the importance of physical activity for both kids and parents.

2008 – The Armed Services YMCA and Y-USA partner with the Department of Defense in the Military Outreach Initiative, which funds memberships and child care for families facing the hardship of military deployment.

LET'S MOVE2010 – The Y revitalizes its brand, officially referring to itself by its most familiar name – the Y – for the first time.
Positioning the YMCA as an important partner in preventing chronic disease throughout the nation, Y-USA garners the support of high-ranking government officials. In 2010, first lady Michelle Obama chose the YMCA as the venue to launch the pillars of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.

2015 – Kevin Washington takes over as the 14th President and CEO of YMCA of the USA, becoming the first African-American to hold the position.

2016 – YMCA of the USA launches its first national positioning campaign, “For a Better Us” that aims to raise awareness/increase financial support of the Y as a cause driven organization.
After a successful three-year demonstration project with the Y, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia M. Burwell announced the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program was the first preventive program certified to save money and improve quality of health. These results are a critical step for HHS to eventually make the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program a covered service under Medicare.

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