The world’s first three YMCAs were founded in the heart of heavily populated cities: London in 1844, Boston in 1851 and Montreal in 1852. The world’s fourth Y, however, doesn’t reside in a booming metropolis. In fact, it resides in Springfield, Massachusetts, a city that doesn’t crack the top 150 highest populations in the U.S., but has a rich, decorated history.
Founded in 1852, just one year after its counterpart in Boston, the YMCA of Greater Springfield was America’s second Y. Over 160 years later, it still carries that same rich tradition and is changing lives in the community.
“That legacy is really important, and a lot of people don’t realize we have it, even members who are from Springfield,” said Dexter Johnson, the president and CEO of the Springfield YMCA. “We have been able to serve this community in a variety of ways since that time.”
When Springfield first became home to a YMCA in the mid-1800s, its purpose was providing a sort of safe haven for young men moving to larger cities for work. While the programs and services might look different today, one of the Y’s primary focuses is still on youth development.
“Youth development is the larger part of our business — we’re the largest provider of childcare here in the Springfield area,” shared Johnson. “We have about 1,000 kids a day going through our early learning and after school programming, which is a great opportunity to serve children and families.”
According to Johnson, his association also places a heavy emphasis on teen development. “We also run a very successful teen program,” he said. “We know how important it is for youth development to really continue beyond sixth grade and not leave young people to their own devices.”
The teen program at the Springfield Y is called “Y-AIM,” which stands for:
Y-AIM is free and for at-risk teens in the Springfield area, with a focus on giving youth the tools they need to be academically successful, as well as healthy and active.
“It is an after school and in-school program,” explained Johnson. “We want to make sure we are keeping them on the right path toward graduation. It’s been extremely successful over the decade it’s been operating, so much to the point that the past three years, we’ve had a 100 percent graduation rate from our seniors in the program.”
In addition to childcare services and Y-AIM, the Springfield Y benefits the community’s health and wellness with two full-service, multipurpose fitness facilities. And in the coming months, they’ll be replacing a current location with a newer facility.
“We have plans to move deeper into downtown,” said Johnson. “Tower Square is a retail center office building that is in downtown Springfield and we have decided to move our branch operations from our Chestnut Street location to that area.”
According to Johnson, the decision was made so the Springfield Y could continue to effectively evolve with the needs of the community. “It will allow us to modernize, have great new spaces, and focus on youth development and healthy living for the community as we move forward,” he said.
And whether it’s an updated facility, new equipment and programming or a heavier focus on high school graduation rates, the YMCA of Greater Springfield has risen to every challenge. It’s been a staple of the community since 1852, and will continue to adapt to meet needs for many more years.
“That’s my favorite part about the Y,” said Johnson. “The Y is going to be what the community needs the Y to be. It does not have a set structure.”