YMCA of Central Ohio

Downtown Columbus YMCA Stands Tall, Serves All

by Walker

At 91 years old, the Downtown YMCA in Columbus stands as one of the city’s more ornate historic buildings that has stood the test of time. Its dark bricks and decorative stonework symbolizes the level of attention to detail that is a part of the mission of the YMCA when making a long-lasting impact upon the community.

Inside the YMCA is a similar story. Health and wellness are obviously at the core of the facility, but some people may not be aware of how the many different types of programs and services reach across multiple socioeconomic levels and positively affect so many people in different ways.

We spoke recently with Sue Darby, the new Executive Director of the Downtown Branch of the YMCA to find out more about the history of the building as well as the services and programs offered within.

Walker Evans: To start, what can you tell us about the history of the YMCA in Columbus?

Sue Darby: In the 1890′s, men didn’t just “go to the Y,” they belonged to it, became part of it. Although branches of sorts existed at The Ohio State University and the old Union Station, there was no YMCA facility for men to go to for physical exercise, a class, or quiet reading time. All of that changed in 1893 with the opening of the original Central YMCA on Third Street, Downtown, the first of many dedicated facilities the Association would own and operate in the years to come.

The YMCA’s evolving and rather simplistic reputation as a “health club” was already evident in its turn-of-the-century facilities. In 1922, the Downtown YMCA located at 40 West Long Street was born. However, it offered far more than physical fitness to its membership of young working men, many of whom were new to city life and often undereducated. Anxious to learn, the men joined discussion groups and frequented the building’s extensive library. The YMCA’s classes in business and trades were eventually recognized as the YMCA Schools, which still exists today as Franklin University.

As the Association grew in membership, so did its geographical reach. The YMCA established a presence in the city’s South Side, then a bustling center of local industry, to serve the large number of factory and steel mill workers there. Also, the YMCA began acquiring open land in earnest, south of Columbus and as far away as Bellefontaine, in anticipation of its first forays into camping, particularly for youth — a YMCA tradition to this day.

WE: In more recent years, there’s been a renewed emphasis on Downtown revitalization through residential development, retail businesses and public infrastructure investment. What role does the YMCA play as a Downtown anchor?

SD: Because of the central location of our Y, we have been able to connect all the districts together: Short North, Old Towne, Clintonville, Franklinton. With the growing young adult population living Downtown, we have seen such a growth. They want to join a movement – something more than a gym but a mission minded organization that gives back to their community.

The City has always asked us to the table in big discussions. Since our successful supportive housing program (over 600 men are provided a home), we were asked to help with the shelter system. Two years ago we opened an overflow shelter unit that provides bed for 190 men and women that live off the land.

We also are the leaders in Diabetes Prevention Program – looked at nationally for our success.

WE: What types of services, events and programming does the YMCA offer that most people don’t know about?

SD: The supportive housing mentioned above and our Diabetes Prevention Program. We also have our Positive Alternative Learning for Students (PALS) program that’s housed at our branch. PALS is a structured and supervised environment for students who have been suspended from school. Students who are on 3, 5, and 10 day suspensions are referred to PALS by local public school systems, juvenile courts, departments of human services and parents. We had over 1,500 different kids come through our doors last school year.

We also have the Corporate Challenge – play to give. Through sports and recreation events, we bring employees of local businesses together.

Corporate wellness is another program. We offer corporate health and wellness programming t match the needs of companies, large or small. We are in partnership with Children’s Hospital, AEP, State Auto, Grange and many others.

WE: When talking about health and fitness services, what differentiates the YMCA from gyms or other fitness facilities?

SD: First, we are a non-profit. So memberships bring about meaningful change, not just within yourself, but in the community. Also, all group exercise classes are included in membership and we offer Membership For All, which means we base your membership rate off your income. We want everyone to have a Y experience.

WE: I’ve heard about potential plans for converting the building to have a rooftop garden where vegetables could be grown. Can you tell us more about that concept?

SD: A rooftop garden is a dream we hope to bring into reality. It not only will provide 400 pounds of fresh produce to our 403 residents, but it will give our men an opportunity to take care of garden. We want to continue our cause in strengthening the community.

Q: Anything else you want to add about the Downtown YMCA… past, present or future?

A: We will continue to be the leaders in chronic disease. We have our Livestrong program that focuses on cancer survivors, our New U that helps kids that our medically obese find hope and success, and our diabetes prevention/management classes.

For more information, visit ymcacolumbus.org/downtown


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