“Where there’s a Y, there’s a way.”
No statement better encapsulates the presence of the YMCA of Greater New York in a city with 8.5 million people. To serve such a wide variety of individuals and cultures, the YMCA needed to be ubiquitous in The Big Apple.
“That tagline really sums up the way we think about helping every New Yorker reach their full potential, and the role the Y can play in helping people be successful,” said Sharon Greenberger, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York.
In other words, the YMCA is all over New York City. So in any neighborhood or community, there’s a way for all individuals to achieve a higher quality of life.
“Our mission includes empowering youth, strengthening communities and improving the health of New Yorkers,” said Elizabeth Toledo, the vice president of field operations for the YMCA of Greater New York. “We’ve helped hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers improve their health each year.”
Through leading one of the nation’s largest YMCA associations, Greenberger has identified four reasons the YMCA of Greater New York has developed such a strong presence: the reach and scale of 24 locations, being present in local communities, acting as a community convener of health and wellness, and taking a welcoming approach to serving the community.
Across the five boroughs of New York City — Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx — the YMCA of Greater New York has 24 locations, including a counseling center and New York YMCA Sleepaway Camp in Huguenot, New York. Considering the reach of so many locations and the sheer volume of members at each location, program and service consistency can be a major challenge. However, Greenberger and her team embrace this challenge daily.
“We’re very focused on making sure people experience the Y in a consistent manner,” said Greenberger. “We want everyone who walks through our doors to recognize they are in a fabulous YMCA of Greater New York branch. We want the look, feel, service and quality of all our programs and services to be consistent.”
Achieving this consistency requires good communication between association leadership and the staff of each individual branch. To facilitate good relationships across all branches, the organization’s executive directors get together for regular meetings, which yield new ideas and stronger bonds.
“Different people bring different skill sets to the table, and we can all learn from those,” said Greenberger. “One of the beauties of having 22 executive directors is making sure they continue to learn from and help each other.”
According to Greenberger, the YMCA of Greater New York thrives on association-wide teamwork. “I think we are a very collaborative place, and we work hard to make sure people have the support they need, and access to ideas and protocols that will help make them successful,” said Greenberger.
According to Loretta Trapani, the vice president, member experience and operations at the YMCA of Greater New York, the role each branch’s staff plays in consistent service quality comes down to simple factors, like individual conversations. “In every interaction with everybody we serve, we want to ensure they get treated according to our four core values — caring, honesty, respect and responsibility,” she said.
While the YMCA of Greater New York has been a pillar of health, wellness and safety to a bustling metropolis of diverse cultures and walks of life, there is one borough in which the association has been eagerly preparing to enhance its offerings: the Bronx.
One of the most exciting things that will happen in 2020 is the opening of two new branches, one in the South Bronx and one in the Northeast Bronx,” said Greenberger. “These are projects we’ve been working on for over a decade.”
The La Central YMCA and Northeast Bronx YMCA will each be roughly 50,000 square feet, feature state-of-the-art design, and have a full slate of health and wellness offerings, aquatics amenities, and programming and community gathering spaces. The Northeast Bronx Y will even have an urban agricultural garden and teaching kitchen.
Offerings and amenities aside, the mere presence of two brand-new health and wellness facilities will fill an enormous need in the Bronx. “The Bronx is really an underserved borough,” explained Toledo. “We currently only have one branch in the Bronx, and in the other larger boroughs we have anywhere from five to seven branches.”
For decades, the Bronx YMCA has been tasked with single handedly serving the 1.5 million residents of a single borough. And while the branch has done tremendous work, the addition of two branches will help the Y cover more ground and address the communities’ health and educational issues.
“We learned that one in three adults in the Bronx are obese,” shared Toledo. “And five of the 62 counties with the highest rate of diabetes in the state of New York reside in the Bronx.”
Between afterschool programs, educational resources and wellness services at its two new locations, the YMCA of Greater New York is equipped to improve the quality of life in an area of great need.
The La Central and Northeast Bronx locations came about in the same way any program or service does: addressing a community need. Of course, planning these services requires the YMCA of Greater New York to hear about issues in the first place.
This is accomplished by actively engaging with community members, something the YMCA of Greater New York is quite adept at. “Our most important outreach is the outreach we do literally neighborhood by neighborhood, based on the dynamics of that community,” said Trapani.
In fact, being present in each community has afforded the YMCA of Greater New York insight into burgeoning needs. “Because we’re on the ground in so many communities, we see trends earlier on, we see what’s happening and we see what those needs are,” explained Greenberger. “We’re able to respond and be innovative where necessary, whether that’s creating a diabetes prevention program or blood pressure monitoring program.”
In response to significant rises in obesity and diabetes across the city, the YMCA of Greater New York put a greater emphasis on health and wellness. The free weight loss program, blood pressure self-monitoring program, as well as a LIVESTRONG program for cancer survivors, are just a few of the ways the association has met members where their needs are.
However, the YMCA has also filled needs beyond fitness. According to Greenberger, 10 years ago, the city was experiencing an influx of immigrants who needed help in several areas: learning English, navigating citizenship, securing housing and finding a job.
The result was the New Americans Initiative, a free program that provides necessary services immigrants weren’t getting anywhere else. In the decade since it was founded, the initiative has become an important service for the YMCA.
“We have seven New Americans welcome centers throughout the city that have grown over time to be a resource for all new Americans — that was something we created and is now being replicated across the country,” said Greenberger.
While the YMCA of Greater New York has made big strides in its programs and services on a broad scope, its success is largely driven by a commitment to bringing people together on a daily basis.
“I think it’s important to be conveners of community and to create those connections that are so important to a person’s health,” said Greenberger. “When you look back at what the legacy of the Y is, it really was about how to make sure people were focused on their mind, body and spirit to stay healthy and feel connected.”
In accordance with the original mission of the YMCA, the YMCA of Greater New York works tirelessly to understand what programs and activities resonate with each community, and how they can be leveraged to get residents plugged in.
“Every branch’s executive director spends time with their community partners, understanding what the needs and barriers to access are, and how we can work to break those down,” said Greenberger.
A basic need the YMCA fills very well is providing a safe place for anyone who needs it. “Our goal is to make sure everybody interacts with people they feel connected to and, at the very least, feels safe,” said Trapani. “We want a clean environment people can come to and feel like it’s another home for them. It’s so important, because the only way they’re able to pursue their potential is to be in an environment in which they feel safe.”
In fact, Greenberger has found this is what many New Yorkers want. “I think there’s a real desire for stronger community connections, and a really strong desire for people to feel like they’re part of something that’s productive, that’s helpful to their neighbors and friends,” she said.
New Yorkers, collectively, are a very diverse group. New York City is called The Great Melting Pot for a reason: as of 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 42.8% of city residents are Caucasian, 24.3% are African American, 29.1% are Hispanic or Latino, and 14% are Asian.
The city’s cross-section of ethnicities and cultures is not a challenge, however. In fact, it has encouraged the YMCA of Greater New York to evaluate how well it meets a variety of needs and challenge itself to go the extra mile.
“Diversity is who we are,” said Trapani. “Inclusion is a choice. We have to learn more about the nuances of each culture and particular groups of people, so our branches can be reflective of those needs.”
For the organization as a whole, this reflection means opening its doors to everyone. “We really live by our motto that we’re here for all and we’re welcoming to all,” said Greenberger. “That is in our DNA. We believe there’s always an opportunity to help people develop healthy habits and skills for life, at any age. There’s always a way in.”
To truly be “here for all,” the YMCA of Greater New York offers a wide variety of fitness programs, including mind-body classes like Peak Pilates and Balanced Body, Group X formats like Zumba, aquatics programs for youth and seniors, and several family and youth-oriented services.
“We have a very robust afterschool program that sits in 70 sites across the city, that incorporates, in addition to important learning, social and emotional skills,” said Greenberger. “It also includes physical activity with a focus on nutrition to get kids thinking about the importance of physical activity in their lives.”
The secret to the YMCA of Greater New York’s success is taking member feedback and intersecting it with programs that bring about positive outcomes in health and wellness. The result is an engaged, loyal community.
“I think our community members — whether they consciously realize this or not — actually shape the organization, the program portfolio and the staff they’re going to see around them,” shared Trapani. “As we listen to their needs, we build the resources in the capacity to best serve them.”
Seeing members succeed on their wellness journeys is the mission, but it’s also their pleasure, according to Trapani. “We try to ensure everyone whom we have the privilege of serving has the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential,” she said.
Providing health and wellness services to a city with 8.5 million residents would seem like a daunting task to most, but the dedicated leadership team of the YMCA of Greater New York takes it in stride every day.
There is a belief in the organization that its programs and services change lives on a daily basis. In fact, many staff members could share personal accounts about a positive effect they’ve witnessed the YMCA have on an individual or community.
Moving forward, however, the YMCA of Greater New York doesn’t just want you to take their word for it. “We’re really excited about this new partnership with an external evaluator who is going to do a longitudinal study on what the effects of the Y are on health and community in the next year,” said Toledo.
The organization is hoping to have statistics to show its impact. “Back in 2003, when we were talking about opening a new Y in the Rockaway area in Queens, the deputy mayor said, ‘Wherever the Y goes, the community will follow, and be better for it,’” shared Toledo. “That stuck, and we’ve always said that, but this new external evaluator will actually give us the research and data to prove that.”
And that’s the goal: to make the community better wherever the Y opens its doors. Through statistical analysis and grand openings, Greenberger and the YMCA of Greater New York will continue to press toward their goal to help every community achieve a higher quality of life.
“Our vision is active, engaged New Yorkers who build stronger communities,” shared Greenberger. “I think that really gets to the heart of what we see as important, which is people being active, but also engaged in their communities and helping others succeed.”