A lot can change through the years. Communities constantly change, and the neighborhoods of Louisville, Kentucky are no different. As the community’s needs have changed, the YMCA of Greater Louisville has been evolving to meet them. Today, that evolution means changing the community’s perception of wellness.
For years, a common perception was that fitness and wellness services were both important, but hardly offered under the same roof. As a greater understanding of overall wellness has been uncovered, we’re learning fitness and wellness are not only equally important, but neither can reach maximum effectiveness without the other.
Having recognized this correlation over a decade ago, the Louisville Y began the planning and construction of a state-of-the-art building to provide accessible services that encompass all aspects of wellness, not just fitness.
This building, currently under construction in West Louisville, is a community integrated health facility called the Republic Bank Foundation YMCA. Its aim is to redefine wellness for Louisville and advance the movement of health equity.
For well over a decade, this movement has been taking on a clearer definition, and through the years, its evolution has been driven by the vision and determination of the YMCA’s board of directors and staff.
In the mid-1960s, during his childhood, Steve Tarver was participating in swim lessons at a local YMCA in Jacksonville, Florida. Now, as the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Louisville, he’s a driving force of improved community wellness in Kentucky.
“Some people might call me a ‘Y brat,’” joked Tarver. “It’s been a part of my life since I was a child — I’ve been employed by the YMCA since I was 14 years old.”
A few decades and a couple leadership positions later, Tarver is the leader of the 10th YMCA established in the United States in 1853. And to a man who’s still a “Y kid” at heart, carrying on such a rich organizational tradition is both intimidating and a huge honor. “A part of that is scary — I don’t want to mess it up,” he said. “There is such a huge heritage and history of being integral to communities — it is an honor and very humbling.”
And even after 19 years in his current position, he’s still growing. “I would not classify myself as a natural leader — I’ve worked very hard at developing my leadership skills and behaviors,” said Tarver. “I believe leadership is generally based on behavior or skill, and is a journey that never ends.”
Much like Tarver’s professional development, it’s been quite a journey for the Louisville Y in its quest to develop services that encompass all aspects of wellness. While the advancement of health equity has been over a decade in the making, the initial dialogue was sparked by a conversation years ago between Tarver and his mentor and former public health director, Dr. Adewale Troutman.
“[Dr. Troutman] was sitting in my office and he said, ‘Do you know what I would do if I could do one thing to improve the health of the community?’” recalled Tarver. “I was thinking [he’d suggest] more community walks, more fitness testing, more group exercise and more weight rooms. But he said, ‘I would improve the high school graduation rate.’”
Troutman believed developing healthier communities had as much to do with mental and emotional health as it did with physical health — and that mental and emotional wellness should work in conjunction with fitness to create overall wellness.
According to Tarver, his commitment — and subsequently, the Louisville Y’s commitment — to health equity can be traced back to that single conversation. “That began a transformational journey for me and our organization,” he said. “It opened our eyes to vulnerable populations, the need for equity and the idea that if we want to make a difference, we’ve got to make a difference in the community, not just run a really good YMCA.”
It doesn’t stop at simply creating wellness programs — it’s the job of community recreation entities to make such services accessible to all members of the surrounding communities.
“We saw a need for opportunities to create continuums of health — not just isolated health services — particularly for people who have lower economic power and educational attainment,” said Tarver. “We’re trying to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
And so Tarver has been on a transformational journey for over a decade, leading the charge to redefine community wellness in Louisville.
In its quest to redefine wellness, the YMCA of Greater Louisville still hasn’t let its primary offerings fall to the wayside. “Aquatics, camping, childcare, youth sports, and our traditional health and wellness programs are all still on the radar and as strong as ever,” said Tarver.
The Louisville Y is made up of several locations, including 11 full-service fitness facilities, featuring state-of-the-art equipment from companies like Cybex, Matrix Fitness and Precor, as well as specialized programming such as MOSSA, Les Mills, Zumba and several other classes. Every branch has the amenities, services and caring staff to meet almost any wellness need.
Additionally, the Louisville Y has always placed a special priority on helping youth develop skills and healthy lifestyles.
“We focus on entry-level recreation, so a lot of young children try sports early,” said Becky Gamm, the senior vice president of program development and operations for the YMCA of Greater Louisville. “We want them to focus on character development, their values and the idea of developing a lifelong interest in sports.”
The association also does a good job of accommodating the wellness needs of all members, no matter their age or medical condition. “We have a childcare program — a lot of the families in our service area need childcare,” said Freddie Brown, the district executive director for the Chestnut Street Family YMCA. “We have outreach programs because we understand the importance of those hours after school when kids don’t have supervision. We also offer diabetes prevention and high blood pressure management programs.”
The Louisville Y has done, and still does, all these things very well. However, in recent years, the association’s leadership has discovered there’s more to community wellness than just fitness and more available childcare.
Following his transformational conversation with Dr. Troutman, Tarver and his team began evaluating how they were already enhancing community wellness with their programming, and how they could do better. And it all started with their understanding of how fitness and wellness services do more than just help members live healthy lives — they act as prevention on several levels.
“We’re talking about primary, secondary and tertiary prevention,” said Tarver. “Primary prevention is staying healthy. Secondary prevention is reclaiming health as someone who’s pre-diabetic, for example. Tertiary prevention is the idea of getting well if you’re not well.”
According to Tarver, the YMCA as a whole — not just the Louisville association — hadn’t been focusing on all levels of prevention evenly. “We spent the first 150 years of the Y focusing on primary prevention — now that’s shifting into more secondary and tertiary prevention,” he explained.
The West Louisville community, which has several issues with chronic disease, violence and a general lack of health and wellness, will be the beneficiary of this shift toward more complete prevention.
“These days, in wellness, we’re talking about more than just fitness,” said Tarver. “That’s one of our transformational paradigm shifts — expanding the concept of health from treadmills and weight rooms to issues of healthy relationships, character development, education, violence, access to healthcare, safe neighborhoods, food security and other social determinants.”
The result of this paradigm shift is the Republic Bank Foundation YMCA, a first-of-its-kind, 77,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art community wellness resource.
“This community integrated health facility is a direct response to several needs in the community,” said Mike Bramer, the district executive director for the YMCA at Norton Commons. “I think it’s going to have a huge impact for a community that lacks a lot of opportunities.”
And to say it’s been a massive undertaking would be an understatement. “It took us 10 years to get this thing off the ground,” recalled Tarver. “It was a very strenuous and sometimes depressing, discouraging journey for us, but our vision for community integrated health — to give people a relationship-based place to get a seamless set of wellness services — was our guiding light.”
Plenty of fitness facilities house traditional fitness and wellness offerings, along with services related to nutrition and recovery, such as smoothie bars and massage beds. The Republic Bank Foundation YMCA is the next step.
Yes, it’s a YMCA first, incorporating several elements from its other locations, like using Daxko as its management operating system, featuring a rewards program through Go365, and boasting U.S. Specialties locker rooms. But with several more offerings, it will accommodate virtually every physical, emotional and mental wellness need.
“We will have a YMCA, we will have a pediatric and family medicine clinic, we will have a rehabilitation center, we will have a center for behavioral and mental health, and we will even have a branch bank in the facility,” said Tarver. “We’ll have all those offerings under one roof.”
Outside the context of community wellness, such a collection of organizations would be highly unusual. But through the lens of health equity — providing accessible programs for populations in need of them — a fitness center, bank, rehab center, mental health clinic and pediatric clinic meshed together makes perfect sense.
“When looking at the health and well-being of an individual, you talk about their fitness and what they eat — but are they financially stable?” said Brown. “Having a bank that can provide financial services and help folks get financially literate is extremely important.”
Whether it’s through engaging fitness classes, medical and behavioral services, and financial education, the mission of the Republic Bank Foundation YMCA is simple: to help all community members achieve a higher quality of life. And most importantly, these programs and services are available to the entire community.
According to Tarver, creating a “one-stop shop” of wellness will help the Louisville Y continue making the healthy choice the easy choice. “If a member turns their ankle when they’re running, I can walk them about 20 steps to get a quick screening,” he said. “Or if a parent is bringing a sick child and a well sibling, they can use our childcare area so they don’t have to worry about their well child while taking the sick child in [to see a doctor]. No matter why you come in there, everybody goes through the same door to enter the building.”
Even though the vision of the Republic Bank Foundation YMCA has been in Tarver’s mind for many years, its gigantic slate of services was made possible by community partnerships the Louisville Y has forged over the years. And several of these partners are directly contributing to the direction of the facility.
“This new facility has five charter partners, and every partner has a contingency included in their lease to furnish one of their senior leaders — who has decision-making capacity within the organization — to serve on a steering committee at the facility,” said Tarver. “This is so we can collectively maintain the vision of community integrated health, rather than just having five people doing siloed sets of services.”
This collaboration with local partners will help sustain the new facility for many years, and it will hopefully produce even more partnerships, which are the backbone of programs and services offered by the Louisville Y.
“We are extraordinarily grateful and honored by the partners we have,” said Tarver. “We’re doing nothing as an independent organization anymore — we either collaborate or we don’t do it. And we consider every one of those invitations a vote of confidence in our organization.”
For their commitment to community wellness, Tarver and the entire association’s leadership team have been rewarded with an opportunity to create real change through a community integrated health facility.
The opportunity to change lives through his work in community recreation is a mission Tarver has valued since he was a “Y kid” and cherishes today. “We’re all on a journey together and we learn something new every day,” he said. “We want to continue on that journey.”