YMCA finds creative ways to stay relevant

This is not your grandfather's YMCA:

At the Y in Dallas, moms and dads who pick up their kids after school can also pick up their groceries, laundry, and pharmacy items at the same stop.

In Houston, Y-owned charter schools allow two-income spouses to exercise after work and still make it to parent-teacher meetings - on-site.

Here in Hollywood, where Olympian Johnny Weismuller once did laps in a small, tile pool, Y activities now include "pilates" (a cross between yoga and isometrics), spinning (group stationary biking to music), Internet classes for teens, childcare for tots, and weight-training for the elderly.

All of the above are indications that the Young Men's Christian Association - which turns 150 this year - is

growing and adapting in its role as one of the most successful and ubiquitous civic organizations in America. Along with other groups for young people - Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America - the Y is expanding its sense of what it can do, and must do, to continue being viable in a changing American culture where many long-established networks of civic engagement are crumbling.

"The business of raising kids in the contemporary marketplace of 21st-century America is far more complex than just a few years ago," says YMCA Executive Director Ken Gladish. Aspects of "family and civic life in which the young participate are changing so fast, that we don't even know how to evaluate them. We are figuring out how to come unstuck from the categories of the late 20th century."

In a sense, these creative new efforts represent a kind of survival strategy. In an age of Sony PlayStations and Internet chat rooms, old-fashioned civic organizations are becoming something of an anomaly. Those that fail to adapt to the needs of modern families are foundering.

According to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," networks of civic engagement in the United States have declined precipitously over the past two decades.

Membership in organizations such as neighborhood associations, sports clubs, and groups from Kiwanis to Rotary Clubs to the PTA, is down by 30 to 50 percent overall, in proportion to the US population. The reasons for this decline include the rise in two-career families, the "technological transformation of leisure," with cable TV, video games, and the Internet, and generational changes.

But spokesmen for youth-oriented organizations such as the Y, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Scouts, say they have seen steady growth over the past ten years - though not always in equal proportion to earlier decades, compared to the growing US population.

As the US population went up 9 percent during the 1990s, those using Y facilities jumped 37 percent. Likewise, 278 Boys and Girls Clubs were added last year, and 350 the year before, nearly a club a day.

While some say this growth runs counter to the overall decline in civic engagement, others say it is a direct response to it. There is "a bubbling up of energy and activity, particularly in the new cutting-edge nonprofit organizations and old-line ones that have managed to change the way they do business," says Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League. People are "recognizing that we need to be more connected ... and so folks out there are doing something about it."

Indeed, many groups like the Y are trying to create a renewed sense of community. In today's climate, this means not only offering fun activities for kids, but catering to the needs of working parents.

"We are designing ways for a family to participate both separately and together," says Ben Casey, director of the Dallas YMCA. This includes simultaneous spouse activities (aerobics for moms concurrent with racketball for dads), and family gathering rooms for refreshments and talks.

"One thing that has been lost in the America of today is the casual communication between neighbors over the back fence," says Mr. Casey. "We are trying to replace that."

The Y is also shedding its "swim and gym" image, offering everything from the latest exercise and stretch equipment to Internet training and arts programs.

"YMCA has survived because it has a genius for flexibility as one of its constants" says Jason Shinder, director of arts and humanities for the organization. Major arts programs have recently been launched at YMCAs in Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta, and Florida, where kids learn to express themselves in painting, writing, and dance, with an emphasis on issues such as violence and health.

Many of these groups are also moving into the high-tech arena. Aided by grants from Gateway Computers, AOL, and Microsoft, Boys and Girls Clubs now teach kids to create digital videos and websites.

And former Brownies might not recognize current activities, which venture into areas such as software, cyberspace, database, icon, font, and memory. Recently added merit badges emphasize management, global awareness, and engineering.

"People have a tendency to still think of us as cookies and crafts," says Brownie spokeswoman Lori Arguelles. "But today we are about science, sports, and cyberspace, with all the Web activities and computers to boot."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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