The Burbank Community YMCA: A Safe Space
The Burbank Community YMCA is providing a safe space for all children regardless of their age, socioeconomic status, race, gender and sexuality through their Child Development Center and Social Impact Center.
Bem-vinda. Fáilte. Herzlich willkommen. Welcome.
No matter how you say it, it all means the same thing: “You are invited in, and we are glad you are here.”
The Burbank Community YMCA in Burbank, California, has been striving to welcome everyone into their facility for 96 years. They continuously meet unmet community needs, and are constantly adjusting and evolving to an ever-changing society.
In the 1970s and 1980s, women began going back to work in record numbers and YMCAs across the country started providing childcare. Burbank was no exception. They rallied donors who really cared about families and built the Child Development Center where the Y provides a high-quality preschool education, an active and enriching after-school program, and youth development programs designed to support high school students as they develop into caring, competent adults.
Mary Cutone, the president and CEO, got her start at the Burbank Y as the director of child development and has carried her passion for serving the younger generations throughout her career at the Y, including her former role as the chief operating officer and now as the CEO.
This commitment of serving youth is engraved into the organization as a whole, and can be seen through many programs such as Learn, Grow, Thrive.
“Learn, Grow, Thrive is a summer school summer camp hybrid for children and youth from low-income households,” said Cutone. “We’ve created the best darn summer program ever, at no cost to families. This program is for those who are low-income households and behind in school. We hire credentialed teachers, our best YMCA counselors and we give a hybrid experience that is exceptional. We help move these kids along academically but also in their soul.”
Learn, Grow, Thrive is made possible through a partnership with the Burbank Unified School District, and its main goal is to prevent summer learning loss. The qualifying students get six weeks of free summer learning loss prevention and summer camp experiences. The program offers them anything from the set curriculum that is contracted through BellXcel to swimming, field trips and afternoon enrichment.
“The programming is meant to, in our best efforts, limit summer learning loss for students in our local school districts who would ordinarily not have access to summer programs that provide them with enrichment or learning opportunities,” said Angela Buck, the senior director of child and youth development. “We basically bridge that gap between the last day of learning for the school and then the first day of their next school year.”
Learn, Grow, Thrive is just one avenue through which the Burbank YMCA is serving its community. A more recent way to serve it is through the Social Impact Center, Burbank’s first and only LGBTQIA+ Resource Center that opened in June 2021. Focusing on LGBTQIA+, social justice and foster care, the Social Impact Center is helping their community become a force that is inclusive, economically secure and a healthy safe space with equal opportunities for everyone to thrive and grow.
“I would say Learn, Grow, Thrive is my most proud flagship program for the YMCA, up until the Social Impact Center,” said Cutone. “I wouldn’t say I’m prouder of one or the other. I feel like it’s an extension and this is only the beginning. We are in a unique position to serve young people, especially those who’ve been marginalized whether through their low-income status, minority status or LGBTQIA+ status, or for whatever reason. We’re leaning in.”
Designed for individuals of all ages with a focus primarily on middle school and high school youth, the Social Impact Center provides a safe space for youth to learn life skills, attend workshops, and improve their mental health in a variety of programming. The space allows individuals of all ages a place to connect, build relationships and make a change within the community.
Specific programming includes:
- A safe space for youth and families to hang out and be themselves unapologetically.
- Workshops including Life Skills, Safe Sex Practices, Social Injustice, Knowing Your Rights, Equality and Equity, Foster Care and System Reform, Gender Identification, and more.
- One-on-ones with youth advocates and social work interns.
- Homework help.
- Movie/game nights.
- Referral services like HIV testing, mental health counseling and homelessness prevention.
The Social Impact Center was thought of during a facility shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 90% of the staff furloughed. While the childcare services were still able to operate, the staff realized they weren’t considered essential in the community and wanted to do more of what they knew they were capable of.
Bryan Snodgrass, the chief operating officer, offered up the idea of a resource room that offered counseling services and provided a safe place for the community. “I started thinking of how we can make our YMCA more relevant in our community, and how do we make it so that we never have to close again if we ever have another pandemic,” he explained. “I just kind of looked at the structure differently and just thought, ‘What if we really went all in, and became a community center that happens to have a swim and gym inside of it.’”
The team started thinking about how they could offer something to this caliber. Rob Rodriguez, the director of marketing and social responsibility, offered the idea of specifically focusing on the LGBTQIA+ community.
Two weeks into brainstorming logistics, George Floyd was murdered, sparking protests across the country and sparking an idea for Rodriguez.
“The Black Lives Matter movement shook the globe, every single person was affected, and I felt strongly that we needed to do something,” said Rodriguez. “I realized we have to use our platform. We are a beacon in this community, people are watching us. Eyes are on us. We have to use our voices and our power for something amazing for this movement.”
This led to adding the social justice aspect into the center.
The Burbank Y stands with others in denouncing prejudice, racism, intolerance and all other forms of discrimination. But more importantly, the Burbank Y wants to be part of the solution, and it’s more important than ever YMCAs and organizations like them lead the way in this change.
“A 21st century community center is not just a swim and gym,” explained Cutone. “Of course, it has a pool and a gym, but it also has an equity center. That’s a 21st century community center, meeting unmet community need. I think our young people can almost lead the way because they’re unafraid. They don’t care if they get their book at the library or at the YMCA. They just want to be somebody and feel good about who they are. The Y is uniquely positioned to help them do that.”
The Burbank Y is helping youth in the community by providing the first and only LGBTQIA+ Resource Center in Burbank, but being the first to do something can come with apprehensions. However, Cutone and her team decided if they were going to go down, they’d rather go down doing the right thing versus following an old model of how things were done.
When the Burbank Y flew a Pride flag outside the building for the first time, Cutone admitted she was worried about what backlash and criticism the Y would face. Her 18-year-old son said to her, “Mom, you’re worried about a bullseye on your back? What about all the gay kids walking around with a bullseye on their back every day?” This gave her a new outlook she is carrying with her.
“You know, if a kid’s going to walk around school, downtown New York or rural Alabama with a bullseye on their back because of their LGBTQIA+ status, I am willing to take it,” said Cutone. “The kids have taken it long enough. I’m learning and committed to be an ally. The Burbank Y is committed to doing the right thing and living our values to serve our youth, especially those most marginalized.”
As the Burbank Y looks to the future, one thing will remain the same: making room for all members of its community with the simple — yet challenging — goal of creating a safe space for all.