NEW YORK – As a 10-year-old growing up in a rough section of South Philadelphia, Kevin Washington was invited to join the local YMCA, and not long thereafter — still a non-swimmer — found himself standing above the deep end of the pool.
"Jump," the instructor yelled, and Washington obliged, though the water was well over his head.
"I jumped in and hit the bottom," Washington recalled. "I remember that feeling of accomplishment when you come back up."
Washington made it safely out of the pool, but he's been immersed in the YMCA ever since. He stayed active in the Christian Street Y through high school and was hired straight out of Temple University as its youth director in 1978, the start of a career-long journey up the management ladder.
After stints running Y associations in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Boston, he was installed in February as the president and CEO of the YMCA of the USA — the first time in the organization's 164-year history that its national office has been led by an African-American.
"It is who I am," Washington said of the Y. "It's helped shaped who Kevin Washington is, what he believes, what he thinks, how he relates to people."
The enterprise that Washington oversees is arguably the most diverse and multifaceted of America's nationwide nonprofits. Its 900 locally-run associations operate a total of 2,700 branches serving about 9 million youth and 13 million adults in communities ranging from affluent suburbs to hard-up inner-city districts. The Ys employ 19,000 full-time staff, assisted by an estimated 600,000 volunteers.
And the organization has evolved over recent decades to encompass operations that go well beyond the original YMCA model.
In addition to the standard offerings — gyms, swimming pools, fitness programs — Ys are engaged in diabetes prevention, low-income housing services, support for cancer survivors, and myriad other endeavors. The Y in El Paso, Texas, has been assisting residents with tax returns, received a grant to curtail binge drinking, and offers its premises to estranged couples as a neutral site for a child's visits with the non-custodial parent.
Nationwide, one of the Y's top priorities is expanding programs for children in the summer, when many of them lack adequate adult supervision and lose ground academically. The Y enrolls more than 900,000 children at its summer camps each year, offers reading and math programs, and plans to serve healthy meals to 150,000 children from low-income families this summer.
Financially, the Y seems in good shape overall, though a few local branches have struggled. In the latest rankings by Forbes of the largest U.S. charities, the Y ranked No. 8 in private donations, with $939 million, and was second in total revenue with $6.6 billion, thanks primarily to membership and program fees.
However, Washington, in an interview with The Associated Press, sounded far from complacent, yearning for expanded financial support that could enable the Y to serve hundreds of thousands more children with its youth development programs. Generally, those programs are designed to be accessible even to children whose families can't afford fees.
"We haven't gotten our full and proper support," Washington said. "You're going to see a much more aggressive YMCA in terms of telling our story, so we can have the resources to expand the programs."
One challenge is to convey to the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who populate some of the Y's gyms and pools that the organization is not simply a practical alternative to the commercial fitness centers in their vicinity.
"We have to communicate with our Millennials, to ensure they understand that they're part of a cause," said Washington, who is 61. "It's our responsibility to help educate them about how they can be helpful."
Founded in Britain in 1844 by Christian evangelicals, the Young Men's Christian Association opened its first U.S. branch in Boston in 1851 and soon adopted as a goal "the improvement of the spiritual, mental, social and physical condition of young men."
It established hotel-like residence halls, organized summer camps, and oversaw the invention of volleyball and basketball. During both world wars, it deployed thousands of volunteers to provide services for U.S. troops and war prisoners.
Barriers to participation fell one by one — women and non-Christians were welcomed, and in the 1960s the Y greatly expanded inner-city operations.
In Kevin Washington's South Philly neighborhood, the Y of that era was a hub of social activity, and a counterpoint to the area's youth gangs.
"Everybody who was anybody in the African-American community had an attachment to the Y," Washington recalled. "But there were a lot folks in that community who went on to the other side ... Many of them aren't around anymore."
At the Y, Washington pursued his passion for basketball, first as a scorekeeper, then as a player accomplished enough to win an athletic scholarship at Temple. As a freshman guard, in the pre-shot-clock era, he was involved in a memorable 11-6 loss to Tennessee as Temple resorted to a game-long stall.
After a 14-year stint at the Christian Street Y, Washington worked at the national Y headquarters in Chicago, then for 10 years as the Y's CEO in Hartford and five years as CEO in Boston.
In Boston, seeking to draw more low-income families into the Y, he jolted his own governing board with a proposal to cut membership fees by an average of 11 percent, with poorer areas getting bigger reductions. Washington predicted the move would boost membership by 10,000 households; the actual increase was 20,000.
As Washington was taking the reins in Boston in 2010, the national Y was undergoing a major overhaul of its brand and image. It adopted a new logo for use by all its affiliates and began officially referring to itself as the Y, rather than the YMCA. According to its new self-description, the Y "is a cause-driven organization that is for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility."
Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said the Y's efforts were impressive.
"One thing they did that a lot of people in the nonprofit world are looking at is reinventing their legacy without sacrificing it," she said. "They're still doing what they've always done, but added a lot of other things. It isn't easy to stay an icon, and I think they've managed to do that."
One example of the evolution is the Y's residential services, evoked in Village People's 1978 disco classic "Y.M.C.A."
While some Ys still offer hotel-like accommodations, others have shifted to programs providing short-term emergency housing to those in need. In Binghamton, New York, the Y has 87 single rooms for homeless men, available for $88 a week. Boston's program offers temporary shelter to homeless families.
Even Ys without such programs consider themselves an extension of home for their members.
"We're very much a safe haven for adults, for families, for youth to truly be themselves," said Jolaina Peltier, executive director of one of New York City's biggest Ys, the McBurney YMCA in lower Manhattan.
It serves about 22,000 people a year, and scores of different languages can be heard in the members' lounge. At the crowded tables, teens doing homework or families reuniting at the end of a work day can look out at the swimming pool, where they might see a mother/infant swimming class or watch McBurney's oldest member, age 106, swimming laps.
The Y doesn't ask about race or ethnicity in its membership applications, so there's no official demographic breakdown, but more than half of its branches serve communities where the median family income is below the national average. One such branch was opened by Kevin Washington in 2009 in one of Hartford's poorest areas.
"The YCMA is one of those places that connects people, regardless of economics, regardless of ethnicity," Washington said. "So many people have their YMCA story. Mine is just one."
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