A Brief History of the YMCA Movement

Today, the Y operates in more than 10,000 neighborhoods across the U.S. and in 120 countries, reaching more than 58 million people across the world. The Y’s mission is to bring social justice and peace to young people and their communities, regardless of religion, race, gender, or culture, but its more humble roots can be traced back to 1844.

The Y was founded by George Williams at the end of the Industrial Revolution when young men were migrating en masse from rural communities into London to look for work. Social conditions in the city were rough: men worked 10-12 hour days, six days a week, and slept in crowded rooms often over the company’s shop. Outside the shop, conditions were worse: open sewers, pickpockets, poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, and abandoned children running wild in the streets. Dismayed by what he witnessed, Williams organized the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) with the goal of substituting life on the streets with Bible study and prayer.

The idea caught on: by 1851 there were twenty-four Ys in Great Britain, and it had begun spreading to North America. In 1866, the Y’s purpose shifted from saving souls to include an emphasis on the physical condition of young men. The Y began to feature gyms and swimming pools, summer camps, and exercise drills with wooden dumbbells and heavy medicine balls. Basketball and volleyball were even invented at the Y! By the 1890s, the Y’s purpose transformed into the triangle of spirit, mind, and body, a more holistic approach to character building that is likely familiar to today’s members.

The Y continued to evolve through the Great Depression and the two World Wars. By the close of WWII, sixty-two percent of Ys were admitting women, and all other barriers quickly began to fall with all races and religions welcomed at all levels of the organization. This openness and willingness to adapt to social and material conditions of communities are what make the Y stand out: since its inception, the Y has sought to bridge religious and social divides.

Today the Y boasts a wide range of programming such as youth sports, childcare, adult fitness, and family nights, which provide families with opportunities to play, interact, and have fun together. The Y also spotlights the importance of the arts and humanities to the development of the imagination, critical thinking, communication, and social skills by maintaining one of the largest arts programs in the country. Recognizing that many youth from underserved and low-income families need extra educational support, the Y also seeks to close the achievement gap by working with caregivers, students, and schools across the country, piloting evidence-based programs that improve students’ educational readiness and engagement while helping them grow emotionally and physically. More recently, the Y became a partner in preventing chronic diseases by participating in First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity and by joining the CDC-led National Diabetes Prevention Program, which helps participants lose weight and increase physical activity with the ultimate goal of preventing new cases of type 2 diabetes.

The Y no longer focuses on Bible study and prayer, but even so, the core of the Y and its commitment to individuals and communities remains. We certainly see evidence of this at our own Stevens Point Area YMCA, which boasts nearly 12,500 members, over 400 program volunteers, and roughly 160 Teen Leaders.

Check back soon to learn more about our local Y history. In the meantime, we’re curious: How have you been impacted by the Y? If you have a Y story to share, we’d love to hear it. Email Joe at jseubert@spymca.org to share your story.

February 5th, 2016|Categories: Community|Tags: |