No more shooting hoops. No more swimming laps. No more gathering to watch the latest installment of “Jeopardy!,” to tell stories or to play cards. When the Kirkwood Family YMCA closed March 17, following the enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions across St. Louis County, people lost more than their destination for working out — they were disconnected from their community.
“We reopened June 15, but it’s [still] really hard right now when our biggest struggle is not having our members here,” Angie Cochran, Kirkwood Family YMCA membership director, said. “We’re seeing so many people not coming because they’re not comfortable. That community feeling is, sadly, just kind of missing right now.”
But this lack of space did not deter YMCA staff from connecting with their members, prompting them to utilize other methods of doing so, such as phone calls. For Diane Summers, Kirkwood Family YMCA executive director, maintaining this outreach is a primary focus of the YMCA’s efforts to continue engaging their community.
“These phone calls can be an hour long because we might be the only person that they have contact with that day, the only phone call they get, the only voice they hear besides something on the TV,” Summers said. “As much as we like to be a part of that and know that we’re involved in someone’s life, it’s hard for us knowing that there are people out there who are in that position. Our challenge is to keep reaching out to those people, making sure to stay in contact with [and] supporting them.”
The Kirkwood Family YMCA also supports the community in other ways, such as providing childcare. Toward the beginning of their period of closure from March 17 to June 15, they launched their Emergency Schools Out (ESO) program, offering controlled programming and supervision for the children of first responders, medical professionals and essential workers. Since August 24, their new Youth Enrichment Program (YEP) has continued and expanded services formerly offered by the ESO program — something Cochran sees as evidence of the YMCA’s passion for meeting people where they are.
“We just step in when needed, like just now with COVID-19 and classes moving to online [learning],” Cochran said. “We’re going to help the people in our community who need help, and I don’t know if there are a lot of other places that help people from 8 months old to 89 years old. We really are for everybody.”
Beyond donations gifted to the YMCA through their partnership with United Way and YMCA memberships, funding for all of this assistance stems chiefly from the ‘Annual Campaign,’ the yearly fundraising drive run by all Gateway Region YMCAs during September and October. The $114,000 raised by the Kirkwood YMCA during 2019’s campaign enabled them, in part, to continue offering their extensive array of services: Youth and Government, Safety in Our Water, youth sports, mammogram tests, tutoring, the Diabetes Prevention Program and childcare, among others.
Caroline Mitchell, Gateway Region YMCA Community Development Branch executive director, sees the collection of services each Gateway Region YMCA branch provides as a means to both address the actual needs of their local community and allow volunteers to give back to the community as well.
“[Whether it’s a] quick change like the change the pandemic brought [on] or changes occurring over [long] periods of time, I think [Gateway Region] YMCAs are good at serving their communities because we engage volunteers and members in helping us make decisions,” Mitchell said. “[And we also] help those volunteers give back to their community. We hear most [often] from our volunteers that they [feel most rewarded] when whoever they were working with sees the result they wanted. If that’s [a volunteer] tutoring someone in reading, seeing that child go from struggling with reading to loving to read is rewarding for [the volunteer] and part of what makes them [feel] thanked or appreciated. That’s the role the Y gets to play — to connect people.”
And to Wendy Cornett-Marquitz, Gateway Region YMCA senior vice president of philanthropy and chief financial officer, the YMCA has done a superb job staying connected with their communities since initial coronavirus-related restrictions’ onset. The YMCA’s ability to pivot in crises is something Cornett-Marquitz believes the YMCA has done throughout its history, and she hopes that families around the St. Louis community know that Gateway Region YMCAs are able and willing to help them.
“If you’re a single parent or a two-household parent and need childcare but can’t afford that, you can count on the Y,” Cornett-Marquitz said. “If your child needs a life-saving skill like swim lessons but you can’t afford that, you have the Y. Through the pandemic, folks have been able to see another side of the Y that maybe they didn’t understand or know existed before, [and that’s because] every service that we offer is specific to the community and the needs of that community. It’s what we’re about. It’s why we exist.”
As COVID-19 restrictions continue to change, Summers believes the YMCA must adapt with them. Existing since 1853 in the St. Louis area, the nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charity has, according to Cochran, blossomed into more than a gym — something she hopes Kirkwood residents see.
“The money that you’re spending on your membership dues is not going to make someone rich,” Cochran said. “The money is being put back into our communities — into Kirkwood. This is truly such an amazing organization. We’ve been around such a long time, and there’s a reason we’re still here. We’re more than a gym.”