What is the ymca?

George Williams, who found himself among the temptations of 1844 London, England, organized the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) as a refuge from the large, industrial city's streets. Focusing on Bible study, prayer, and social needs, the YMCA crossed social and religious lines among displaced youths offering safe housing and a better environment from the turmoil of the times.1

Seven years later, in 1851, there were 24 YMCAs in England, 1 in Montreal, Canada,2 and 1 in America, which was organized for sailors and merchants by Thomas Valentine Sullivan, a retired Bostonian sea captain. This “home away from home” concept filled a need for the changing world of the industrial revolution among a variety of cultures and nations.3 After just ten years, in 1854, a YMCA international convention was held in Paris, France. By then there were 30,369 members among 397 separate YMCAs in 7 nations.4

YMCAs were organized among many cultures in America over their first half-century: Anthony Bowen, a freed slave, organized a YMCA for blacks in Washington D.C. in 1853; a railroad YMCA was begun in Cleveland, Ohio in 1872; an Asian YMCA was established for the Chinese in San Francisco, California in 1875; Native American YMCAs started in 1879 in Flandreau, South Dakota; and a Japanese YMCA was established in 1917.5

During this time of expansion, in 1903, the YMCA created an industrial department to specifically work with immigrants, railroad workers, miners, and lumbermen. Seven years later, through a challenge grant from Sears Roebuck's Julius Rosenwald, 25 black YMCAs were built in 23 cities to aid black travelers during the segregated times.6 A half-century later, in 1967, racial discrimination was banned in all YMCAs and the Black Achievers program was begun by Quentin Mease in Houston, Texas. Refined in 1971 by Dr. Leo B. Marsh of the Harlem YMCA to include volunteer adult mentoring, the program continues today for all teens of color.7 Officially in 2002, the YMCA of the USA created the National Diversity Initiative clarifying the inclusion of all people, including women, in their organizations.8

One of the first student YMCAs was started in 1856 at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. That same year one of the first English as a Second Language (ESL) classes was held at the Cincinnati YMCA for German immigrants.

This focus on students' needs and further educational needs of the working class eventually led to a full-scale liberal arts and vocational offering of evening classes at the Boston YMCA in 1893. Across America, there were 20 YMCA-operated colleges by 1950, many of which later became freestanding universities.9 More recently, in 2008, YMCA joined with the Lumina Foundation for Education to assist low-income youth with the financial aid process in their College Goal Sunday program.

Another major emphasis of the YMCA movement began in the 1860s: housing for young men moving into the cities. Beginning in 1867 with Chicago's Farwell Hall, the facilities included gyms, auditoriums, and small dorm rooms. By 1940, the American YMCA housing topped 100,000 rooms, which numbered more rooms than any hotel chain at that time.10

the YMCA's Military outreach

During the American Civil War, the YMCA's U.S. Christian Commission volunteers served as surgeons, nurses, chaplains, and workers who distributed supplies and taught soldiers to read and write. This morale and welfare support of soldiers continued during World War I through the United War Work Council. They operated 1500 canteens in the U.S. and France, organized 4000 huts for recreational and religious events, and raised $235 million for relief work for refugees and prisoners of war on both sides.11 Some of the remaining funds after the war were used to build more YMCA buildings and foster YMCA trade schools and colleges.

During WWI, Y.C. James Yen, who was working with YMCAs in France, developed a simple Chinese alphabet of 100 characters. This alphabet was used among the Chinese laborers working in Europe during the war and facilitated eventually eliminating illiteracy in China.

YMCA's support of soldiers continued during World War II through the National Council of YMCAs. They joined with five other voluntary organizations to form the United Service Organizations for National Defense, the USO, and worked worldwide assisting prisoners of war in 36 nations.12 They also worked secretly in the U.S. Japanese internment camps organizing clubs and activities for the children.13 More recently, in 2008, the YMCA Military Outreach Initiative was formed with the joint participation of the Armed Services YMCA, the YMCA of the USA, and the Department of Defense for the support of families dealing with military deployment.

Focusing on physical fitness

Another core focus of the YMCA was evidenced with the inclusion of gymnasiums in their buildings since 1869. Throughout the decades, their emphasis on physical fitness has been coupled with innovations. In 1881, Robert J. Roberts developed exercise classes and called it “body building.” In 1891, James Naismith developed basketball at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA Training School. Shortly after that, William Morgan developed what was later called volleyball, thinking that basketball was too strenuous for businessmen.14 Sixty years later, in 1950, YMCA volunteer Joe Sobek developed racquetball in Greenwich, Connecticut.

In the mid-1970s, the YMCA joined with the National Basketball Association (NBA) Players Association in organizing the Youth Basketball Association (YBA) program that promoted skills and teamwork over competitiveness.15 As for competitions throughout the world, YMCA currently assists in promoting the Far Eastern Games, The Pan American Games, and the Inter-Allied Games.

Introducing Summer camp 

Camping was another early focus, begun in 1885 with Camp Dudley at Orange Lake, New York. As one of America's first summer camp programs, it is the longest continually operated camp today.16 This also signaled the beginning of YMCA work among boys, which also included the earlier developed exercise classes using wooden dumbbells and specially designed “Indian” clubs.17

A YMCA campaign “to teach every man and boy in North America” to swim, led to George Corsan's revolutionary group swimming lessons in Detroit, Michigan, in 1909.18 Using his new methods, he taught 800 boys to swim in 4 weeks in Newark, New Jersey. In 1922, the National YMCA Swimming and Diving Championship began and has grown to involve 1500 participants yearly. The YMCA continues to include pools and swimming instruction for water safety reasons, as well as for the development of kids' problem-solving capabilities and the increase in their self-esteem.

Efforts Against Childhood Obesity

To emphasize the importance of play for healthy children and for their development of creativity, motor skills, problem-solving abilities, and social skills, YMCA initiated their annual Healthy Kids Day in 1992. With the goal to teach healthy habits to families and to inspire a lifetime love and habit of physical activity, this April event has grown to include nearly 1600 YMCAs across America.19

For their 150th anniversary in America, on June 2, 2001, the YMCA emphasized their focus on physical fitness for children and parents with the World's Largest Run, a synchronized run/walk across the U.S. Over 54,000 participated through 700 YMCAs in all U.S. time zones.20

To further these goals for healthy families, in 2004, Y-USA joined with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to form the Activate America Initiative and with the Eli Lilly and Company in 2008 to establish the YMCA Healthy Family Home (HFH) program. In 2010, YMCA was the venue for the launch of the Let’s Move national campaign against childhood obesity.

How the Organization's Focus Shifted 

What began as a Christian organization to save souls from temptations, evolved over the decades to the triangle focus of the development of spirit, mind, and body.21 Evangelists Dwight L. Moody and John Mott were a major influence in sending thousands of missionary YMCA secretaries oversees to establish locally controlled YMCAs. During the Depression though, Bible study classes dramatically dropped and enrollment increased in exercise classes, camping programs, and educational and vocational classes.

After WWII the YMCA’s mission shifted to four programs involving boys of all school ages and their fathers. Beginning in the 1980s these programs were replaced by a focus on the four values of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. Youth development programs also shifted from focusing on correcting problems to preventing problems by promoting healthy development.22

While being guided by these core values, the YMCA has returned to their three-fold purpose of building healthy spirits, minds, and bodies.23 Their programs focus on youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

In 2010, YMCA began to officially refer to themselves as the Y, their familiar nickname. In America, the Y has approximately 2,600 YMCAs in 10,000 communities that engage 9 million youth and 12 million adults in their programs. Worldwide, more than 45 million people are involved in the Y in 124 countries.24

  • 1. “The Story of our Founding.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/history/founding.html > 1 April 2011.
  • 2. “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.” The Y of Greater Cleveland. < http://www.clevelandymca.org/news/media/ymca_history.pdf > 18 April 2011.
  • 3. Op. cit., “The Story of our Founding.”
  • 4. Op.cit., “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.”
  • 5. “1870s – 1890s.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/history/1870-1890s.html > 1 April 2011.
  • 6. “1900-1950s.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/history/1900-1950s.html > 1 April 2011.
  • 7. “1960-1990s.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/history/1960-1990s.html > 1 April 2011.
  • 8. “2000 – present.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/history/2000-present.html > 1 April 2011.
  • 9. Op.cit., “1870s – 1890s.”
  • 10. “1800-1860s.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/history/1800-1860s.html > 1 April 2011.
  • 11. Op.cit., “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.”
  • 12. Op.cit., “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.”
  • 13. Op.cit., “1900-1950s.”
  • 14. Op.cit., “1870s – 1890s.”
  • 15. Op.cit., “1960 – 1990s.”
  • 16. Op.cit., “1870s – 1980s.”
  • 17. Op.cit., “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.”
  • 18. Op.cit., “1900-1950s.”
  • 19. “YMCA's Healthy Kids Day aims to get families moving through play.” Daily Herald. < http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20110321/submitted/110329955/ > 1 April 2011.
  • 20. Op.cit., “2000 – present.”
  • 21. Op.cit., “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.”
  • 22. Op.cit., “A Brief History of the YMCA Movement.”
  • 23. “For Community.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/about-us/ > 1 April 2011.
  • 24. “Nice to Meet You.” The Y. < http://www.ymca.net/organizational-profile/ > 1 April 2011.