By Caryl Clem:
A London gentleman, George Williams, started a movement on June 6, 1844 dismayed by the deplorable living conditions in cities. The organization Young Men’s Christian Association aspired to the goals of providing safe places to socially gather, explore education and share in worship. YMCA’s were a safe haven. A retired merchant marine captain worried about the safety of sailors and merchants traveling to Boston. Sea trade was the basis for the majority of goods arriving in America, providing safe shelter would build financial security for everyone involved. Places sponsored by the YMCA were established in Boston by the early 1850’s.
The theme to build a better community by working together kept expanding the impact of YMCA. After a meeting with President Lincoln, a volunteer force of 5,000 surgeons, nurses, and chaplains were supplying the soldiers with clothing, medical treatments, and company while distributing 1,000 Bibles during the Civil War. Adding to safe lodging, military assistance, and immigrations services, YMCA built its first gym in 1869 to promote healthy living and body building. Chicago was the first large dormitory to house YMCA members, Farwell Hall constructed in 1867 that would serve as a model for future construction. Another Chicago first was a YMCA hotel built in 1916 since the membership was doubling in size. Future Chicago YMCA hotel register lists recorded famous names such as award winning journalists Andy Rooney and Dan Rather, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.
The president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., Mr. Rosenwald was a leader promoting and funding building African American YMCA facilities in Chicago and across the country in 1911. Americans taking road trips during the 1920’s through the 1940’s, could find 100,000rooms in YMCA hotel lodgings more than any hotel chain. Exploring Chicago and Milwaukee in the late 1960’s cost $5.00 when I shared a double bed room with another college girlfriend.
Playing ball has forever been a favorite American pastime. In 1896 “volleyball” was invented in a YMCA in Mass., in Colorado in 1926 “ softball” was introduced into league games by the YMCA, the term “ racquetball” was coined at a YMCA in Conn. in 1956. Pairing with the Red Cross, swimming lessons were sponsored by the YMCA. In 1923, the first YMCA summer camp was in Volvo, Illinois, and Camp Duncan. By 1958 over 13 summer camp locations in three states were managed by the YMCA.
Even the YMCA can “modernize”, dropping the old term for “Y”. The male gender membership started changing after WWII, now the organization includes all members of a family. Current issues of feeding hungry children and understanding diversity are included in the variety of programs available. One study estimated that the “Y” has positively influenced at least 70% of Americans.
The “Y” remains a vibrant entity; inspiring Y success stories are available online