More Than a Gym: World YMCA

YMCA. There’s probably a local fitness center near your town with these letters. In 1978 the acronym became almost inseparable from the popular Village People song. However, the Young Men’s Christian Association doesn’t just provide a place for people to workout or an easy line dance for weddings; it works to “bring social justice and peace to young people and their communities, regardless of religion, race, gender or culture,” according to their website.

George Williams founded the organization in London in 1844 after witnessing the conditions young men in the city faced at the time of industrialization. Concerned for their moral wellbeing and upset by the desperate situations many young men lived in, Williams began the YMCA as a kind of sanctuary from the city streets, focusing on prayer and Bible study. The idea caught on quickly: Thomas Valentine Sullivan brought the association to America in 1851.

As the organization grew, the services expanded. In 1889, American members created the YMCA World Service to help fund and support YMCAs around the world. The different chapters began to offer places for young men to exercise and opportunities for education. Soon, organizers added issues surrounding health and the arts, among other topics, to the YMCAs’ agendas. Families became the focus, and YMCAs structured themselves to serve the needs of men, women and children.

Today the YMCA assists 58 million people in 119 countries. The YMCA World Service continues to support the World Alliance of YMCAs, a confederation of all of the YMCAs in the world. Using a community approach, the YMCA seeks to improve the lives of young people and their families. It focuses on both challenges that distinctly impact certain communities, as well as more international-level issues. Programming includes everything from youth leadership projects to health and HIV/AIDS prevention education.

Mary Tikalsky, director of world services for YMCA spoke in Professor Diamond’s Achieving Global Impact Through Local Engagement class recently, giving students a better sense of the organization’s international scope and the importance of volunteers in any organization. She described the wide range of opportunities for volunteers in the YMCA, from serving as mentors in underserved communities to building bridges for philanthropic giving, and related her unique experience with the organization.

Tikalsky first discovered the YMCA after a friend gave her a membership to their local gym. She enjoyed the center so much that she decided to get more involved, though at the time, she didn’t really understand much about the YMCA.

“I went to a training and then I became a fitness instructor, it took me until I got there and got to be a fitness instructor then I was in the Y every night taking [or teaching] classes,” Tikalsky said. “When you’re there all of a sudden you start watching people meeting people and you start ‘seeing the water.’”

Thanks to the recommendations of colleagues at the YMCA in Delaware, Tikalsky had the opportunity to work internationally with the YMCA.

“Someone came up to me and said would you like to be a volunteer on our international committee?” Tikalsky said. “This person changed my world.”

A German major in college, Tikalsky was ecstatic to learn that the committee had a new partnership with YMCAs in Germany. She went abroad, helping teach classes and offer services to German citizens. Her experience inspired her to stay involved with the YMCA, assisting with other international efforts and helping other volunteers find roles to support the organization. Despite the large scale, Tikalsky said that the YMCA always feels like a community.

“It’s a huge organization but what I love about it is that even though its so huge, its still very personal,” Tikalsky said. “I love it also because there are good people all around the country and all around the world, and I could send you to Togo tomorrow or South Africa and the YMCA people would treat you as their new best friend in a minute. That’s the beauty of the values of the YMCA.”

Tikalsky encouraged students to consider volunteering with organizations that exhibit values they admire. She advised not to let fear of failure or inadequacy keep them from reaching out to different causes.

“Have passion for whatever mission it is,” Tikalsky said. “You don’t have to be perfect; it’s not about being perfect.”

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