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Mission-Specific: YMCA Conference Focuses on Social Responsibility

April 19, 2016 | Community News and Media, Media Coverage

Originally posted on

Communities move from awareness to action with local YMCA programs; meetinig looks at how to do more

MONROE – A Saturday recreation program for children with autism and their families has helped families in Somerset County for 25 years. In Hunterdon County, a Citizen Study Group has helped 33 students become citizens since 2011. The Center for Support, Success and Prosperity has provided medical, spiritual, social and emotional services to Middlesex County’s homeless population for the past eight years.

These varied programs have two key element in common: They take social responsibility seriously, and they happen at Central Jersey YMCAs.

On Thursday, the YMCA’s mission of social responsibility —- and the different ways New Jersey’s Y’s are fulfilling that mission — brought more than 350 volunteers, Y employees and community partners together to discuss what is being done and what more can done to help those in need.

In its third year, the Graham Social Responsibility Conference is a statewide effort that is the first of its kind in the nation, said Bill Lovett, executive director of the NJ YMCA State Alliance.

“The conference is aspirational in that it is designed for both staff, volunteers and community partners to have real impact for positive change in their communities,” Lovett said. “What are some of the programs that can we take home and implement. Eighty percent of people live within three miles of a ‘Y’ so how can we apply ourselves to the issues of social change. It can have quite an impact.”

Sponsored by the NJ YMCA State Alliance, the conference at the Forsgate Country Club shone a spotlight on successful YMCA social responsibility programs, with the aim of inspiring more leaders to find groundbreaking ways to meet critical community needs. As a cause-driven nonprofit charitable organization, the ‘Y’ focuses on strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

“Everyone knows the ‘Y’ as a ‘gym and swim.’ But the ‘Y’ is also here to meet the demands of the communities it serves,” said Gary Graham, namesake, chairman of the conference and the former executive director of the NJ YMCA State Alliance. “We know that when we work together with other community leaders, we can bring about meaningful change. The ‘Y’ can marshal the resources to address pressing social issues such as education, joblessness, drug addiction and child welfare. Through this conference, we want to move more ‘Y’s from awareness to action.”

Hunterdon County YMCA volunteer Bill Taylor said the YMCA has a personal place in his life, ever since he found himself a transplant to the state years ago. Now, as vice chairperson of the Social Responsibility Committee, he continues the mission of the organization that offered so much to him.

“We (the YMCAs) all do social responsibility programs on our own. We always have,” Taylor said. “We do social responsibility everyday. Whether it be the swim programs for the youth — a lifesaving skill — or the aeobics for the elderly. This conference is to try to do more and do more together. To make a difference in our communities.”

The YMCA’s annual social responsibility conference began in 2013, after an anonymous New Jersey donor in 2012 provided seed money to encourage Ys statewide to address social issues, said Anita Bennison, associate executive director of the NJ YMCA State Alliance. One of the grant stipulations was that Graham and his wife, Bonnie, of Medford, organize the events.

“More than anything else, that first conference was a consciousness-raising effort so that people could see that really something did need to be done and that they could do it,” Graham said. “Out of that came small programs that have grown into bigger programs.”

Health and well-being

The YMCA is one of the nation’s leading nonprofits strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Across the U.S., 2,700 YMCAs engage 22 million men, women and children — regardless of age, income or background — in order to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve the nation’s health and well-being and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors.

Ravenell Williams, president and CEO of Plainfield YMCA, said the annual conference has offered “great ideas and initiatives.”

“Hearing examples of Y programs that work has been invaluable,” he said. “These are initiatives that every ‘Y’ should be doing.”

YMCA of the USA President and CEO Kevin Washington, the keynote speaker, called social responsibility the “soul” of the organization and explained it was at the core of the creation of the nonprofit. Throughout the years, YMCAs have been the first to establish ESL programs (1856), job training and education including the first night school (1893), support for military personnel and their families, including morale and welfare services, beginning with the Civil War, the founding of the USO and the addition child care services in the 1980s.

“Years ago, when we revitalized our YMCA brand, we formally established social responsibility as one of the three areas of focus. But the truth is, social responsibility has always been a part of the DNA of this organization” Washington said. “In fact, it is what started who we are and what we do. This conference builds upon a great history that we all are attached to and a part of.”

Going forward, Washington said the social responsibility in 2016 for the YMCA includes an “organizational wide commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

“Welcoming all people to participate fully is part of our social responsibility and our mission,” he said. “Here’s the shared intent for social responsibility; to foster social connectiveness, stengthen support networks and encourage investment in our communities while activating resources and engaging people from diverse populations for individual and collective captions. That’s our strategy. That’s what this conference continues to reinforce. People supporting people, investing in the community and engaging in the diverse population.”

Walking through the gallery

The conference attendees opened their day viewing the 28 social responsibility programs in the Gallery Walk exhibit that lined the main conference room before hearing opening remarks from the Grahams, Taylor, who also acted as moderator and Patricia Kelly, founder-president and CEO of America’s Horsewoman.

In developing social responsibility programs, YMCAs are responding to unique issues facing their communities and providing services in critical areas including community health, job training, quality of life, and family services. From social services to advocacy to partnering projects, state YMCAs offer social responsibility programs that include Adult ESL courses, camps for children with HIV/AIDs, access to safe water in the developing world, youth civic engagement and job coaching and senior technology courses.

The Somerset County YMCA showed off its popular twice-a-month, free “Saturdays in Motion” program at the Somerset Hills YMCA that has been offering recreational programs to children with autism and their families for 25 years and the Hunterdon County YMCA featured its Citizen Study Group that has helped 33 students become citizens since 2011. The Raritan Bay Area YMCA showcased its Center for Support, Success and Prosperity that caters its medical, spiritual, social and emotional services to the homeless population.

“We identified the needs of the homeless specifically for day services to move them along the continuum to self-sufficiency,” said Steve Jobin, president and CEO of the Raritan Bay Area YMCA, located in Perth Amboy. “This started out as a once-a-month program and now it has developed into a day service. Right now we are in separate churches and various halls, but come this summer we will create a location for this on Smith Street.”

Jobin attended the conference with Pastor Berny Falcon-Lopez of God’s Army Ministry, one of the community partners for the program. Falcon-Lopez said the program, which began in 2007, forges relationships with the participants as its provides case management and helps them navigate through the various services.

“One family of six was divided,” she said. “Now we have the family in their own affordable Section 8 housing and got the family back together. They now volunteer and provide some of the case management services to others.”

Before and after Washington took the stage, the participants attended their choice of eight workshops on topics such as “Building Bridges, Uniting Communities, Serving All,” “New and Innovative Ways YMCAs are Working Together,” “Sustainability: Making the Case for Support” and “Telling the Story of Your Social Responsibility Initatives.”

Marc Koch, executive director of the Somerset Hills YMCA in Basking Ridge, which is part of the Somerset County YMCA, said he explored the workshop on “Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives.”

“So far we have learned all about what corporations are looking for when funding with community partners,” Koch said. “And all the while being inspired by the great work achieved by our collective YMCAs.”

Community organizations and corporations including The Campbell Soup Co. and Johnson & Johnson were be on hand to discuss how YMCAs can build effective partnerships with businesses. Also, Flemington-based America’s Grow-a-Row shared how YMCAs can work to fight hunger by supplying food pantries with locally grown produce.

“The Y can be a leader in dismantling barriers for those who live on the margin. There are so many ways in which we can work within our communities to create positive change,” Graham said. “This conference demonstrates how we make our communities stronger by delivering innovative programs that support people of all ages and demographics.”

Beyond New Jersey

This year, the conference also drew interested YMCA alliance members from eight other states, including Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. The out-of-state representatives were there to add their own projects and programs to the mix as well as learn “from the best,” said John Gillig, a volunteer from the Kentucky alliance and WaterStep community partner.

“They learn here and hopefully bring it back to their own states,” Lovett said. “Every ‘Y’ is independent and a nonprofit, so they cannot be told what to do, but we at this conference can help point the way. Together, we all get better at doing it.”

Representing the community partnership of WaterStep and the Kentucky Alliance of YMCAs, Gillig said the YMCAs collects donated shoes statewide and sells them to offset the WaterStep budget that in turn installs water purification systems, repairs hand pumps on wells and offers health and sanitation education in developing countries.He added that the experience at the state conference is invaluable as the “NJ YMCA Alliance is on a pedestal to other alliances.

“The Kentucky YMCA Alliance aims to be like New Jersey,” he said. “Really, New Jersey is on a special level.”

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