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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on community rec organizations across the country. In this “Tough Calls” series, industry experts share how their organizations are battling through financial adversity, problem-solving and making difficult decisions that will hopefully be of benefit in the long run.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit is no stranger to adversity. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about challenging circumstances that will have a lasting effect on the industry, and those challenges have forced the Detroit Y’s leadership team to make some very tough decisions.

Since March, the Detroit Y has had several difficult choices to make, between furloughing staff, severely limiting programs and services, and permanently closing two of its locations — the Lakeshore Family YMCA and Livonia Family YMCA branches — back in May, after evaluating the financial sustainability of its operations.

“It’s not easy,” said Latitia McCree, the senior vice president, communications and marketing of the Detroit Y. “We have to make hard decisions. We’re following the rules, we’re waiting and we’re doing whatever work we can within those rules.”

Even before the association had to operate at a limited capacity, the Lakeshore and Livonia YMCA branches had been struggling financially. A drastic decrease in membership and revenue during the pandemic only compounded these struggles. “Roughly half our membership has left,” added McCree. “And we only have about 10% of our staff working right now.”

In spite of these challenges, however, the Detroit Y is still finding ways to serve the community. Due to state guidelines, each of the association’s fitness facilities are closed, so the primary services available are child care and youth-oriented programs, food delivery services and virtual fitness classes.

Detroit YMCA employees deliver food through the Y Nourish program.

“We’re a community service organization and we’re here to serve,” said McCree. “We have a program called ‘Y Nourish’ through our healthy living division where we are providing food to families five days a week. We’re operating early child care at both our Farmington YMCA and our Boll Family YMCA, and we’re offering day camp.”

The virtual offerings at the Detroit Y extend beyond just fitness, according to McCree. “We’re also offering some virtual arts programming,” she said. “We also have an online improv training on our website through our partnership with the Detroit Creativity Project. Then we’re running a virtual achievers program to prepare young people in metropolitan Detroit for careers.”

These services are all vital to many families in the community, and demonstrate the Detroit Y’s commitment to serving. However, deciding to keep these offerings instead of others was a particularly difficult challenge.

“It’s hard, because we think everything is critical,” said McCree. “Every community need is important — whether it’s education or health, whichever organization or community member navigating that need is going to deem it as important.”

Staying abreast of community needs has helped guide these decisions, no matter how difficult they have been to make. “The No. 1 thing you have to do is look at what your community needs, and what resources you have that can meet those needs,” said McCree. “What is it the community needs? What resources do you have?”

Through virtual meetings with each other and conversations with members, the Detroit Y’s leadership team has determined the best way for the association to proceed over the past few months. 

It hasn’t necessarily been popular at all times — members rarely like losing access to community resources they love — but the Detroit Y is problem-solving and meeting the challenge of serving the community to the best of its ability while ensuring it will outlast the pandemic.

“To make sure we are going to be around another 100 years, we have to make hard decisions so we can stabilize,” said McCree. “That way, when we’re allowed to reopen, we will reopen with a solid foundation. That’s just what we have to do.”

Bobby Dyer

Bobby is the former editor of Community Rec Magazine.

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