The history of the national Y dates back to 1844, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the organization arrived in Stevens Point.
In 1967, two men—Chan Copps, an officer of the Copps Corporation, and Gerry O’Brien, an attorney—and a group of their friends began pushing to bring the Y to Stevens Point. O’Brien characterizes this early group as “a bunch of young guys who were looking for a place for recreation.” Although the city allowed the group to use the rec center one night each week to play basketball, they were looking for more frequent opportunities to get together. When a couple of officers from the Milwaukee Y office were passing through Stevens Point, O’Brien and Copps saw this as an opportunity to gather more information on how they might bring the Y to Stevens Point.
The officers needed some convincing. In fact, one of the officers warned O’Brien that they “couldn’t just drop one in from an airplane.” They’d have to establish an organization and gather support.
In order to convince the national Y organization that the community had a need for a Y and that the city would support it, Copps and O’Brien began organizing the first board of directors and spent a year visiting every organization in town—PTAs, schools, banks, and businesses—with flyers and brochures informing the community of the Y’s mission. A memo to the national organization from 1967 states, “I am happy to report to you that … Gerry O’Brien and myself [Chan Copps] have spoken about the ‘Y’ project to over 1,200 people. The response has been outstanding.”
The Y officially opened in the old firehouse, but their membership base grew rapidly. By 1972, the board of directors knew they needed more space to expand their programming. Around this same time, the two Catholic schools in Stevens Point decided to consolidate by selling one of their buildings. The Y’s Building Fund Committee negotiated with the bishop and eventually raised $800,000 dollars to buy the building, build a swimming pool, and do some remodeling. The Y did encounter some adversity during this transition, particularly from community members who had donated money to build the school, which was still relatively new. In fact, O’Brien notes that on one tour through the building, they encountered a handwritten sign that read, “You may call it a Y, but it will always be Pacelli.”
Early on, the Stevens Point Y was primarily a fitness and recreation center with the Bridge Street wing being rented out as office space; but in the 1980s the Y refocused on youth and family outreach by developing programming at schools in the Stevens Point and Plover areas, eventually expanding to offer full day child care for working parents. By 1990 the Y had assumed the leadership of the Portage County Teen Program and the Stevens Point Special Olympics program. In the late 90s, the Y began leasing 93 acres of land just outside of Stevens Point, eventually buying the land and renaming it “Y Camp Glacier Hollow.”
Today, the Stevens Point Y boasts about 12,500 members, over 400 program volunteers, and roughly 160 Teen Leaders. Executive Director Dave Morgan insists that everything the Y does is designed to “nurture the potential of children and teens (youth development), improve health and well-being (healthy living), and motivate people to support their neighbors and the larger community (social responsibility).” From its inception, the Y has adapted remarkably to the changing needs of the community and striven to teach the four core values of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility.
O’Brien reflects on the impact the Y has had on the Stevens Point community: “One of the pitches we gave [when making the case for the Y] is we told people, ‘This Y is going to be for everybody.’ It’s not just for the rich guys. We emphasized that if someone can’t afford it, we’ll have a means of letting them use it.” He continues, “It was something we [the community] really needed. We were just looking for a place to play basketball, but it’s been very well received.”
Thank you to Gerry O’Brien for everything he did to bring the Y to Stevens Point and for sharing this piece of community history with us. We want to hear from our readers, too! How have you been impacted by the Y? Email Joe at email@example.com to share your story.