January 17, 2014 10:20PM
By DAVID SMITH
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — The Ocean Community YMCA wants you to think of its facility as your third destination — home, work and the Y.
It has been working hard to make that a reality with its recent $8.2 million renovation and expansion. The new Y is bright and airy, an inviting place that now has dedicated rooms for activities and programs that once had to share the same space.
“We saw a need to reposition the Y,” said Ocean Community Y’s President and CEO Maureen N. Fitzgerald. “With the studies that we did, we realized that we could serve more people if we repositioned. And serving all of the people in the community is what we are all about.”
The resulting payoff has been an increase of about 3,300 new members in Westerly, which now stands at 8,500, as well as membership increases at its branches in Arcadia and Mystic. The expansion has also provided a dramatic increase in the number of programs it can offer and the number of people it can reach. What’s more, that membership figure does not reflect the increase in people who just sign up for classes and other programs.
Operations Vice President Tim Babcock says that after the renovations, a lot of former members came back. In an effort to make that happen, the Y held an open house on New Year’s Day and signed up nearly 200 people.
“It’s bright and airy,” Babcock says. “It is a place you want to be.”
Even the lower level, where Studio A and B, a canteen for youngsters, and offices are located, has natural light from new windows thanks to a basement-floor level courtyard on the back of the building where the tennis court was once located. But it is the new and expanded programs that are the draw.
For example, the Y has a Health Ways Program for those 65 and older, or with disabilities. Participation in the program has doubled. There are 400 people enrolled and up to 80 people take part in a Silver Sneakers class that meets four times a week.
In total, the Y now offers 140 exercise classes, up from the 90 it offered before the renovations. And of those 140, 125 are part of the Y membership.
The garden club meets regularly in a room downstairs that has a kitchen and allows for speakers and luncheons. The multi-purpose room will soon be turned into a gymnastics center and soft-play area. Babcock says the Y has secured a $50,000 grant from the Lattner Family Foundation to buy new gymnastics equipment such as a vault, parallel bars, mats and a new spring floor. The grant also provides funds for automatic doors at the main entrance.
Moving the gymnastics program out of the gymnasium will free up 15 hours of gymnasium time that will be turned into more free gym time and other activities.
The participation in the gymnastics program has increased from 35 to 175.
“It is a quality program that is progressive,” says Babcock. “Youngsters can stay in the program from 12 to 13 years.”
There are also new Spanish classes, ballet, a drama program and cooking classes for youths.
All of this increased activity has also led to increased employment at the Y, which currently employs 250 people, says Babcock, an increase of 25 percent.
As far as the third destination goes, Fitzgerald says that there are at least 15 people at the door each morning waiting for the Y to open. And an hour later there are kids with their parents coming in for classes. At night the upstairs wellness center is filled with people working out on treadmills, cycles and weight machines, and using free weights.
“The Y is cause driven,” says Fitzgerald, who has been with the local organization for nine years. “The Y is dedicated to serving the youth, promoting healthy living and social responsibility. It is open to all.”
To that end, the Y will once again start its four-month-long fundraising drive on Feb. 17 to raise money to provide scholarships or free memberships to those in need. The Y currently provides a scholarship to 1,500 people.
The goal is to raise $360,00, but Babcock noted that it has exceeded that goal for the past several years.
While the Westerly Y has undergone a great change, Fitzgerald said the other spokes on its wheel have not been forgotten. The priority, she said, was to secure changes to the facility at 94 High St. first and increase membership.
At the same time, however, the Y has spent $1.4 million over the past nine years to make improvements to its Camp Watchaug day camp in Charlestown. That has led to increased usage at the camp and on weekend rentals. The facility now handles 250 campers per weekly session, but could enroll double that, says Babcock.
The Arcadia Y in Wyoming has seen improvements in terms of new equipment and painting. There are also plans for a new floor in its wellness center. Long-term plans call for building a new Y facility in Richmond. Fitzgerald said the organization is looking for land. It has a conceptual plan for the building, but needs to work with developers and the town to make that happen. She added that there are also plans to renovate and improve the Mystic Y. Feasibility studies are under way, and the work would include a new structure and renovation.
A new mentoring program is now in the planning stages and will begin in April. Fitzgerald says the facility was one of 24 Ys across the country to receive a grant from Y USA to fund the effort.
Debbie Scheinblum was recently hired as the first program director for Reach & Rise Mentor Program. She will be traveling to San Francisco next month for training. The program began at the San Francisco Y 20 years ago, she noted.
Scheinblum was a mental health therapist in New London working with children and their families before joining the Y. She says that she is currently doing preliminary interviews with mentors to explain the program and screen candidates.
“My long-term goal is to match 30 mentors with mentees, but we could start with five,” she says.
One thing that Babock and Fitzgerald are adamant about is the reputation of the Ocean Community Y — a $5 million-per-year operation.
“We are very diligent on risk management,” says Fitzgerald, citing such risks as drowning and child abuse. “We set guidelines. Our reputation is important.”
“There has been a cultural change,” says Babcock, who has been with the Y for 18 years and has held almost every job except the one held by Fitzgerald. “There has been training for employees. We only try to hire the best.”