The Ann Arbor YMCA is a long-standing nonprofit serving its communities for over 160 years.
For many people, the “Y” is basketball courts and swimming pools. And while physical fitness is an important aspect of what we do, there’s much more. Our three main areas of focus are youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. We provide services in these areas to all of Washtenaw County and Southern Livingston County. Our particular association also has a priority focus on diversity, equity and inclusion as well as global innovation. We’ve grown and changed, and we’ll continue to do so as the needs of our community change.
In more recent years, our team’s worked to expand our wraparound services, increasing our focus on mental health, and our programming around youth development and social responsibility. These services are becoming more important because of the great financial needs we see in our community, and because of the trauma our youth have been experiencing over the last couple of years that’s challenged their social and emotional development and their academic achievements.
When COVID-19 first arrived in Washtenaw County in March of 2020, our YMCA was one of the first sites to be exposed. Like many organizations, we closed our doors for what we thought would be a brief period of time. Yet, due to government regulations and safety precautions, our facility at 400 W Washington would not reopen again for six months.
We pivoted quickly to serve our community in innovative ways. During lockdown, we were able to offer group exercise classes to the entire community for free, thanks to funding we received from United Way and the Ann Arbor Community Foundation. It was important to us to help keep our communities as healthy as possible and to keep them connected with others.
We also worked to provide learning opportunities to children and teens at home. Teachers from our child development centers led virtual arts and crafts, STEM projects and reading activities. Our teens engaged in their action and advocacy programs, entrepreneurship classes and Youth Volunteer Corps online. Today, we continue to offer virtual programs for the comfort and safety of our members, even as we provide daily in-person engagement.
While our building was closed, we had the opportunity to collaborate on the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. From May to October of 2020, we distributed free 25-pound boxes of produce to the community on a weekly basis at 15 different sites throughout Washtenaw County. There was such a need for fresh food that families often lined up long before distribution. Helping to supplement the great work others were doing was meaningful to me and my staff. It allowed us to meet and serve our community where they were at.
Since Fall of 2020, we’ve remained open. Our membership is not back to pre-COVID-19 numbers, but it’s slowly building. We were extremely fortunate to have members who continued to pay their monthly dues while our building was closed. These donations, and others, helped us keep our staff employed, which was of great importance to our board of directors and leadership team. You have to be responsible to your staff first or how else can you say to the community that you’re a socially responsible organization? How can you serve the community?
When it comes to social responsibility, making sure the Y is for all is a large focus for us. We know that in all communities there are people who are underrepresented, who are marginalized, and who aren’t receiving the services necessary for them to thrive. Our organization works in collaboration with government, with other nonprofits and educational institutions to address the intergenerational poverty and the academic discrepancies that exist and to work toward changing systems that create unjust inequities.
This includes providing scholarship assistance for individuals facing economic struggles. We offer reduced rates on membership, childcare, summer camp registration, programming and services. We also create specific programming for individuals and communities who otherwise might not feel welcome, such as our Gender Embodiment Through Voice and Movement workshop and a range of LGBTQ+ offerings.
A social responsibility commitment compels us to make a stand on social justice issues. At the beginning of COVID-19, when there was a lot of hate messaging directed towards the Asian community, as if they were responsible, we put together marketing materials to combat this misinformation. Our social justice work has called us to protest together as staff at Black Lives Matter rallies and to offer public support and advocacy for our African American community.
As a leader of color, I believe that having persons of color in leadership roles is extremely important to allow for representation and cultural competencies. There are fabulous white allies doing great work in diversity, equity and inclusion, but it’s important to have people of color in all roles in an organization, many who bring a more intentional focus on equity issues. Nationally, leadership in the YMCA movement still does not match the demographics of the communities we serve. It’s important that we make concerted efforts to overcome this.
For myself, my team and everyone in our community, the last two years have been exhausting. It’s a challenge to continue to serve when you have reduced staff members, and need to find those individuals who want to be in-person caring for the well-being of others. It’s hard to keep up morale, and to be able to adequately reward staff for their perseverance, their loyalty and their passion towards service at a time when revenue is reduced.
These are challenges that many nonprofit leaders are facing, along with staying creative and able to turn on a dime to meet the needs of the community as they constantly shift and rules change. We look for opportunities to stay relevant, and to continue serving the community in ways that are motivated by their voice.
I’m encouraged that the YMCA often serves as a bridge builder. There’s so much dissension in our communities amongst people. We hope the programs and services we offer and our commitment to inclusion can allow people of differing opinions and backgrounds to come together, to feel welcome, and to find commonality and compassion for each other.
Toni Kayumi serves as CEO of the Ann Arbor YMCA. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work–and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.