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How two Ys created online virtual wellness communities to help members stay connected during and after the pandemic.

During the summer and into fall, community recreation centers had to adjust how they were reaching members. This not only took fitness classes virtual, but it took whole communities online to try and stay connected during times that were not ideal.

Many leaders in the industry quickly realized how important it was to add online wellness offerings to their programming as the struggle with mental health and social isolation increased, especially among students who were missing normal routines of school and after-school activities.

At the Princeton Family YMCA in Princeton, New Jersey, Michael Roseborough, the “Accept Compete Excel” (ACE) project director and youth forum leader, found a way to address this concern by connecting and engaging the youth in his community with the Paths to Success Series.

This weekly online series allowed students in the Princeton community, grades six through 12, to interview successful people, as well as interact with other students in the community also participating in the series.

“As a teenager your only job is to go to school and that was severely disrupted,” said Roseborough. “I thought it was really important to create an atmosphere with the Paths to Success and just provide youth the ability to know their friends are on there too, giving them something to look forward to and talk about.”

Additionally, to reach all age ranges at the Princeton Family Y and address any misinformation for members, Roseborough shared the free webinars they hosted, including “Coping with Anxiety in the age of COVID-19.” Also offered was “A Mental Health Boost Event,” facilitated by Dr. Tyree Winters, “The Hip Hop Doc,” who is known for providing an atmosphere for families to dance and exercise together.

Roseborough elaborated being virtual is going to be a lasting component of programming. This is why many facilities have also created whole virtual wellness programs on their websites, such as the Stephens Family YMCA in Champaign, Illinois.

“Our management team had a brainstorming session as soon as we shut our doors,” said Christina Frye, the development and marketing director at the Stephens Family Y. “It was a collaborative effort from within our leadership team here, starting with what we have in-house to offer, then reaching out to community leaders to see what we can add.”

Virtual wellness offerings at the Stephens Y include fitness classes such as personal training, LES MILLS On Demand, workouts for kids and seniors, nutrition tips and recipes, spiritual and mental health and wellness, and family activities.

Frye’s best advice for offering anything virtual is to understand Google is your friend and will help you learn how you can improve any experience. “I learned investing in the visual and audio quality is really huge for the experience of people so they can see you and actually hear what you’re trying to do,” she said. “When people have a better experience, they’re more likely to stick with it.”

This is one of the many lessons Frye and her team learned in the virtual process, along with thinking about the long-term impact from the very beginning. “We did not want to start doing something we couldn’t continue,” she said. “We anticipated if we go down this road, people will expect us to continue down this road, so we were very careful not to offer a hundred classes virtually per week, but keep it something manageable, like one per day, because that was a load we knew we could maintain.”

Overall, the key to both virtual programs being effective was collaboration — one thing community recreation professionals are best at. Thinking outside the box of their facilities helped both Roseborough and Frye create programs to connect their members during a time they couldn’t physically be in their facilities.

“If we’re going to continue to survive and grow, we can’t just go back to doing what we did before COVID,” said Frye. “It may look very different from what we did before and that’s the reality of what I think we’re going to need to do. It pushes us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and try new things.”

It’s Time for a Website Update

At the Stephens Family Y, Christina Frye shared her team is working with web developer JW Technology & Design to build a specialized home for virtual wellness offerings on their website due to the current demand, and to make it more user-friendly for members.

“We  knew we needed to get a web developer in order to be able to rebuild the website,” shared Frye. “He has been working specifically with YMCAs for about a decade now, so it was a great fit for us to try with the virtual programming.”

Brittany Howard

Brittany is the editor of Community Rec Magazine. Reach her at brittany@peakemedia.com.

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