Billings Wonderful Y

by Eric Sharpe

You’ve heard of the “Seven Wonders of the World.”  If we had to pick Billings’ “Seven Man-Made Wonders”, certainly making the list would be the Metra, the Mormon Temple under the Rims, and the Scheel’s off Shiloh which is the largest stand-alone retail space in the country.  Several other candidates could be argued for, but one that would fly under the radar is Billings’ YMCA.

It is not an overstatement.  This “wonder” is not due to it being one of the largest complexes in Billings at 110,000 square feet, but has everything to do with the truly amazing things that happen in nearly every square foot of that space.

What You’d Expect
The Young Men’s Christian Association, referred to as the YMCA, or more commonly, the “Y”, is a worldwide organization based in Switzerland. Founded in London in 1844, its principle focus was to turn Christian principles into practice for developing a healthy “body, mind, and spirit.” These three concepts are reflected in every incarnation of their logo over the years by the three sides of a triangle.

Though some Y’s still emphasize Christian principles, most have expanded the core principles of “body, mind, and spirit” to address a multitude of needs and diverse beliefs. Certainly, many Y’s still provide temporary housing and activities for those in great need.  My parents actually met at a YMCA dance in the early 1950’s while my father was renting a room at the local Y in Decatur, Illinois.  It was that type of place.  It was a safe haven for those in need.

Most of us old enough to remember the days when the YMCA was one of the only places you could go for recreation activities recall that the image of the Y has been much maligned during its more recent history.  Growing up, the Y was a pool with too much chlorine, a weight room that looked dangerous, and a basketball court that needed to be resurfaced.  The image of the Y became a caricature in the 1970’s and 80’s as it was the punch line of jokes and suffered the fate of being the title of a wildly famous disco song.  That song was intended to be flattering to the Y, highlighting its draw to the downtrodden, encouraging young men who were “short on dough” to put their “pride on the shelf… And just go to the Y.M.C.A.”  It was a place where “You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal.”  Such press tended to pigeon-hole the image of YMCA’s everywhere.

Not What You’d Expect
But to shelve the Billings’ Y into such a small space of service is akin to looking at a single puzzle piece to assume what the whole picture must look like.  The downtown Billings YMCA is remarkable.  I do not lightly make such statements.  I pride myself on the accurate use of language, and in attempting to express the remarkable nature of this gem in our midst is difficult. The puzzle pieces are robust, colorful, and far reaching.

The YMCA Village
“It is a community within a community,” explains Kim Kaiser, the Y’s CEO. Frankly, it is a group of dynamic communities, within the Billings’ YMCA village, within the city of Billings.  Calling it a village is not intended to be a pun on the name of the disco group who sung the popular YMCA song, by the way.  The intent is to encourage an understanding that the Billings Y is tremendously dynamic and impactful. It is a grouping of concentric circles of compassionate causes that combine to make a virtual village of extended family for residents.

The number of programs offered alone could define that village as they are far reaching in scope and effect.  Multiple group exercise programs, kids and tiny tots activities, pick-up basketball games, swimming, weights, childcare, personal training, cycling classes, Pilates, boot camps, yoga, pickleball… the list is exhaustive, all taking place in at least 15 separate specialized spaces including two basketball gyms, two pools, a kids gym, a kids fitness center, a dance studio, a wellness studio, a cardio studio, a weight room, an afterschool room, a family fitness center, a sauna, hot tub and brand new locker rooms provided in part by a generous donation from Scheel’s.

These spaces are not only updated, for the most part, but they are vibrant, clean, and inviting with bold colorful painting schemes and encouraging posters and murals.  This is not your grandfather’s YMCA. This is everyone’s Y.  Corby Skinner, recently retired Communications Director at the Y, explained the holistic nature of the programs offered as being a result of the overall operating concept: “We are a non-profit which is substantially different from other gyms… we have a mission, not religion – it is health and wellness and serving the community. We are always looking at the needs of the community.”

YMCA puzzle.jpg

Their focused mission has resulted in addressing specific community needs through well planned programs driven by well trained leaders. For instance, their “Enhance Fitness” program sponsored by Billings Clinic is a well attended set of weekly classes developed from the national Enhance Fitness program.  It helps older adults “become more active, energized, and empowered for independent living” with a focus on reducing the symptoms of arthritis through strength, flexibility and balance. No one in Billings was serving this need until the Y took up the challenge.

The Y’s Livestrong program, also a local version of a successful national program, is a partnership with St. Vincent’s Frontier Cancer Center that provides a free 12 week program that “fulfills the important need of supporting the increasing number of cancer survivors who find themselves in the transition period between completing their cancer treatment and the shift to returning to their everyday lives.”  This program is helping fill a gap in patient/survivor treatment that has long gone unserved.

The program helps “participants build muscle mass and muscle strength, increase flexibility and endurance and improve functional ability.” It also focuses on “reducing the severity of therapy side effects, preventing unwanted changes and improving energy levels and self esteem.”  The effectiveness of the Livestrong program is impressive.  On average, 74% of participants increase strength, cardiovascular health, and flexibility. Specially trained volunteers and professional trainers lead the program which had to meet strict requirements for accreditation.

Frankly, several of the Y’s marquee programs deserve “stand-alone” focus articles in the coming issues of MoFi.  The successes they boast are actually the stuff of a best selling novel.  Countless stories of triumph in the face of tremendous odds prompts chills of pride in our community upon hearing them.  Kassia Lyman, the Y’s Health and Wellness Director was given the task of leading the Livestrong Program during its inception.  “We started with five in the pilot program… now we get a lot of referrals from physicians– there’s a waiting list of 40 individuals,” she explained.  Since 2014, they’ve helped 130 people complete the program which runs four times a year.

Each session takes 14 participants through an amazing program catered to each individual cancer survivor.  By the end of the program, lifelong friendships are built on common struggles both in and out of the program.  “It is a great support system in which people with a common struggle can lean on one another, support one another, root for one another,” Kassia adds.  But the program can be challenging for its trained staff as well. “You become so attached to these people for 12 weeks. You just want to cry and hug them but you have to be their rock… The impact is so much greater than what I could have expected.”

Lean Times
Billings YMCA history dates back to its founding in 1905.  Being a non-profit organization, they have struggled at times to stay ahead of the curve and provide for critical infrastructure upgrades. Ten years ago, the Y almost had to close its doors.  The Y’s ledger problems were not a result of mismanagement but simply due to attempts to keep up with the needs of its members through loans for upgrades and expansion.  According to a 2005 Gazette article, the Y’s board took on the issuance of $3.9 million in tax free bonds to pay for badly needed repairs and upgrades in the 1980’s and 1990’s which made it the largest carrier of debt that any Y in the nation had ever undertaken.  But their dedicated membership did what any good village community does – they rescued it.  Kim Kaiser expressed that “This organization has come a long way because of leadership, the board, donors, and community support.”

A critical donation drive coupled with restructuring efforts kept the Y afloat, and today, it thrives.  The community bond that exists in the Y is evident in the bustling activity which takes place there.  Members range in ages across the demographic of Billings itself with some members having been part of the Y for 50 plus years.  They have a diverse client base which is “accepting of all” according to Skinner.  Lyman adds that “Everyone is welcome in this facility – you see babies and older adults, families don’t feel restricted, they can come in with the kids and just read a book while the kids have fun.”

The Y’s service to the community is wide reaching and that is because their drive is deliberate.  Kaiser explains they are constantly asking “What is the impact we are making?  What are the health factors impacting our communities?”  They are ever evolving to meet new needs.  The push for 2017 is two fold: addressing obesity and empowering all youth to reach their highest potential.  She says they are asking “How do we change drive or motivation” in helping people become healthy.  They don’t just want to offer a diet or an exercise program.  They want to empower their members.

They’ve already had successes in those realms.  One great success story is of a member whose weight impacted her relationship with her child.  She was afraid to simply go out for a walk with her toddler in fear that if the little one took off running, as kids do, she’d not have the ability to catch up with her. It was a frightening prospect.  Her dramatic weight loss led by Y staff resulted in a new person, and a child who can run and play with her mother.  Recently, they received a heartfelt phone call from a graduating MSU student who simply wanted to say thank you for putting him on the right track.  One comment from the Y’s website summed up these sentiments: “I really feel like the YMCA has given us a gift of health that we never expected, and that we will take with us for a lifetime.” Countless stories of gratitude mark the decades of the Y’s impact on the community.

The Future
Program development is not simply a “round peg” in the “round hole” solution.  They develop new group exercise programs focusing on health behaviors:  Kassia Lyman explains, “We don’t just focus on the fit person – we want to also reach health seekers” -people who aren’t even ready for a beginner class.  “We are developing programs that make them feel welcome. We are trying to reach people where they are at that time” in their level of fitness. New such classes are coming online in January 2017.

But the Y is still in need.  Their Youth Center is outdated and in need of upgrades.  They recently received funding from the Fortin Foundation of Florida to perform a market study to determine expansion needs.  Such upgrades are critical considering the popularity of their youth and after school programs which include swim lessons, rock wall climbing, and other activities.  They also have after school satellite programs at four elementary schools.  And in step with the original concept of “body, mind, and spirit”, the Billings Y offers afterschool math, reading and STEM classes (science technology engineering and math) which provide cool opportunities for kids to learn robotics, engineering, and even basic computer coding.  They are just one of five YMCAs in the country to  pilot the STEM program.

But being a non-profit, funding has to be creative to meet expanding needs.  Even many of the current 15,000 members (with 1,600 to 2,000 passing through the doors every day) might not understand the Y’s non-profit mission with some having asked with surprise, “I can actually donate to the Y?” Yes.  Anyone can.  And perhaps everyone should – members and non-members alike.  Why?  Corby Skinner emphasized the real impact of the Y on the Billings community: “We are more than a swim and gym – We are a cause.”  That cause is empowerment.  Empowering individuals with a sense of inclusion is the embodiment of Billings itself.  Whether a member or not, residents should understand that the Billings YMCA is not just part of our community – in essence, it is our community.  The Y represents everything that is great about Billings and that is what makes it truly one of the “Wonders” of our city.

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