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The first time I heard the phrase “virtual reality,” I was talking to my nephew, an avid gamer. I cannot understand how he can be so engrossed — at age 13 and now 29 — with fighting dragons, building skyscrapers or blowing up bad guys with so much enthusiasm and dedication, all in the privacy of his own bedroom, preferring to interact with friends he’s never met in a world that doesn’t really exist.

I didn’t get it then and I still don’t. Maybe it’s because I never owned an Xbox or have been lured into the sweetness of Candy Crush. Or maybe it’s because I like people and real life. But virtual reality, and the unreality of it all, is now part of my real life.

As the marketing director of the Akron Area YMCA, I am charged with getting virtual programming alive and well, and out to our members. At present, it’s positioned to be a value-added benefit, designed to keep members who are still reluctant to come into our buildings engaged and of course, healthy and active.

Unlike my nephew, they won’t be wearing headsets or performing calisthenics on their keyboards. Instead, they will be challenged to battle their bulges and lift a finger to at least turn on their computer.

I do support the concept of virtual reality. In fact, I have spearheaded the creation of a Virtual Y studio, which means I took an unused room in the back of our association office, painted the walls a branded blue, slapped on a humongous Y logo and set up lights, a camera and a cushy gym floor — all ready for action.

We are starting our adventure by recording 10 of our favorite instructors, each doing a 30-minute class in front of a videographer, using an earpiece and a microphone. Music free from copyright restrictions will be added later, hopefully syncing with the beats and mood of the lesson. All videos will be edited and uploaded onto Virtual Y, a component of Open Y, the website we have recently launched.

Members will be able to freely access this content with the provision of the email address we have on file for them.

Once on the site, they can scroll through our classes, as well as those shared by our YMCA counterparts that have led the way to this new reality. Zoom classes and relevant blog posts will also be part of the mix, with categories ranging from active older adults, Barre, boot camp, cardio, toning, youth and family, and everything in between.

We even have one class called, “You Can be a Mermaid,” taught by one of our aquatics directors who happens to be a synchronized swimmer. But don’t hold your breath. Virtual Y isn’t the big fish we are trying to catch — we need members.

Like so many of our counterparts, we are still treading water from COVID-19 shutdowns and a downturn in our membership numbers. The return of those on hold is an optimistic trickle.

So, we’re trying to reel them in through a virtually unreal way by providing Y classes — or more specifically, providing Y classes outside of the Y community.

The equation works if the only objective is to provide exercise. But is that all we really do? Of course not. In fact, the Y has battled being identified as just a place to swim and a gym, but we are a community. We are a cause, and now we are a TV channel — sort of.

At any given time, Y members can flip from Facebook scrolling to watching a fitness class, take a break from TikTok to tune into Tabata, or sit on the couch with their latte and laptop and do leg raises with Lori, a Silver Sneakers instructor.

They can do it all in the comfort of their own home, alone. But is this the reality we really want? For the long haul? Even after a COVID-19 vaccine? I hope not.

The Y is about community and connections. It’s about seeing your friends in class and having a chat on your way to the parking lot. It’s the personal greeting from staff who call you by name and ask about your family. It’s about the support that’s felt, the accountability of showing up and being seen, the absolute knowledge you are missed and that you matter.

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Judi Christy

Judi Christy is the director of marketing and communication at the Akron Area YMCA.

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