It's fun to be at the YMCA, especially as a kid. And now, as an adult, our family's local branches in Raleigh make it all the better. I mentioned our YMCA in this Note, but my love for the YMCA as an organization, in general, runs deep, and I want to express it fully.
My husband and I have signed on to fundraise for an annual campaign (you can view our page here). During the kickoff meeting, we were asked to think about our "Y Story." Stories shared were of people who attended camps as a kid while others joined the Y as adults for the gym, as employees, or for programs for their kids. My story fits firmly into the first group. I was a bonified Y Kid.
When my mom, sister, and I arrived in Los Angeles, California, I was four years old. My dad, who had immigrated from Colombia the year before, greeted us at LAX; finally reunited as a family ready to start our new life in the USA. Our new home was a two-bedroom apartment in a quiet little city called South Pasadena, known for its excellent schools and safe neighborhoods. My dad had done a lot of research, planning, and executing. It was no accident that our new apartment was across the street from what would be our elementary school.
A few months after our arrival, my dad became a bus driver for the South Pasadena/San Marino YMCA. This gig was more than a paycheck: it was an opportunity, a gift.
With his employment, my sister and I were allowed to attend the YMCA-operated after-school care for free. It was on-site at our elementary school and a blessing for a family with one car and two jobs. My mom quickly found work as a housekeeper, taking multiple buses to get to work and back to pick us up by 6 pm.
I had so much fun at YMCA after-school care. I loved my counselors, and I felt secure, engaged, and free to be me. I didn't speak English yet, but somehow I managed. My favorite counselor, Lisa, "or Lisa Pizza," as I called her, was kind, funny, and always made me feel great. Arts and crafts were my favorite way to spend the afternoon but also spent a lot of time hanging on the monkey bars and "dancing" to the rhythmic sounds of the train passing behind the school.
My YMCA daycare moved to Lacey Park during the summers. The Y had a cluster of small cabins that felt huge to my younger self. We'd spend our days singing, dancing, creating, reading, and playing games in the park when not doing the same indoors. We also went on field trips to the beach, amusement parks, and the zoo. My dad, now a YMCA staple himself, drove us, and on those mornings, I'd help him with his daily checklist for operating the bus. I loved holding the clipboard and perfecting the checkmark starting point and brisk upward stroke, just like he had. My fellow campers loved him; I was so proud that he was my dad.
He eventually moved on to a different line of work. Yet, knowing our family's financial situation (and their love for my dad during his time there), the Y gave us another gift: they extended discounts to my family so that we could continue our after-school care.
As we got older, my sister and I started attending a week-long YMCA sleep-away camp in the mountains a few hours outside of Los Angeles. Camp Round Meadow is where I deepened my love for being in nature.
I relished the feeling of being independent in the wild even though our counselors kept close tabs on us. Days spent riding horses, creating gods-eyes with colorful yarn and popsicle sticks, and evenings made for sweaters and singing around the campfire felt magical. While the social time was memorable, the most profoundly impactful moments turned out to be those of solitude while participating in the YMCA Rags and Leathers Program.
The program was/is a character-building experience that fosters the Y's mission of strengthening the mind, body, and spirit. The simple artifacts (cloth bandanas and leather medallions) are tangible representations of personal intentions and commitments made. Leathers were leather badges strung on a lanyard in either a triangle, circle, or square shape, representing spiritual and personal growth. After the Leathers came the Rags, solid color bandanas expressing the acceptance of more profound challenges for strengthening all aspects of our being and how we wanted to exist within our community.
The program, as is the YMCA, is rooted in Christianity, but my family is not. Thankfully our religious affiliation didn't (and still doesn't) matter. My parents did, however, have strong values that the YMCA helped reinforce. While accepting the Leathers and Rags challenges may have been decidedly spiritual to some of my Christian friends, I was part of the cohort who embraced them as personal growth without much else as context. Yet upon reflecting, my time spent in solitude sitting on a rock, or the ground amidst the trees, answering prompts to personal growth challenges, indeed was spiritual. It took me a while to understand spirituality outside of religion, but it makes me happy to think of how spiritual I've been my whole life. The program influenced me in subsequent years as I connected with myself and my community in ways that I might never have otherwise.
As a teen, I graduated from camper to CIT (Counselor In Training). During the school year, I volunteered as a Y nursery caregiver to earn credits for attending summer camps as a CIT. I also participated in the Youth & Government program, where I had a lot of fun while getting my legal/political curiosities out of the way.
I'll never forget the time and efforts my parents made to keep us engaged with the YMCA with all of the above. From endless driving to and from, to selling YMCA branded cardboard tubes of candied peanuts to their employers and friends, all to raise money for us, and kids like us, to be able to attend camps.
The YMCA community gave us so much, from the kind and loving counselors and the friendships made to the staff and volunteers. In particular, one member named Chris, a nurse who, upon learning that my sister and I might not attend summer camp one year due to family finances, tapped his colleagues at his hospital to raise funds to cover our fees. Thank you, Chris; you were our angel that year.
My childhood was made so bright in large part because of the YMCA, and it's incredible to see the power of our local YMCA's values and commitment in action when taking on community needs and creating purposeful, safe, and joyful places for all.
I'm amazed and thankful that the Y has been such a big part of our daughter's lives, too. They thrive there, as do we. After all, it's fun to be at the YMCA! I know that the popular YMCA song by The Village People, arm letters and all, says: "it's fun to stay at the YMCA," and that is one Y Story. My story, my husband's, our daughters', and those of many people, is of being at the YMCA: having fun, learning, and growing while feeling connected to themselves and their community.
Every kid should have the chance at having a joyful YMCA experience, or something like it. That's why my husband and I support the YMCA and are happy to share our campaign page if you're keen on supporting it, or your local Y. You are guaranteed to make a positive impact on someone's future story.