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YMCA in America

For 150 years, the YMCA has been a pioneering force in the United States—a force so powerful that, as we begin the 21st century, it is arguably the most successful social institution this country has ever known.

The original Young Men's Christian Association started modestly enough—in London in 1844—as a small group of men concerned with serving fellow young men who, like themselves, were new to the city. Twenty-two-year-old George Williams and 11 friends were compelled to help young men find what they felt: God's grace. The first members were evangelical Protestants who prayed and studied the Bible together.

Years later, Boston sea captain and missionary Thomas Valentine Sullivan also worried about the temptations facing young men in cities. Inspired by the work of the first YMCA, he led the formation of the first U.S. YMCA, in Boston, on December 29, 1851. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.

One out of three Americans reports being a YMCA member at some point in life, but what's even more remarkable is that the YMCA has touched virtually all Americans in some way. YMCAs invented basketball and volleyball. YMCAs pioneered camping, public libraries, night schools and teaching English as a second language. YMCAs introduced the world's first indoor pool and group swim lessons. YMCAs offered after-school child care long before "latchkey kids" had been given a name. And YMCAs have provided war relief since the Civil War, aiding millions of soldiers home and abroad.

In 150 years, the YMCA brought about many great organizational programs too—programs it started, nurtured and shared, such as staff training and certification, which launched the field of professional development. It also established the first retirement fund for any major welfare organization, founded upon a donation from industrialist John D. Rockefeller.

In addition, YMCAs have provided the right environment for ideas and organizations that might never have started without them. The Boy Scouts of America, Camp Fire Girls, the Negro National Baseball League, the Gideons, Toastmasters, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and Father's Day all got their start at YMCAs. The YMCA helped found the United Service Organizations (US0), and the Peace Corps was patterned after a YMCA program.

The list of accomplishments goes on and on and on.

So what is the YMCA's secret? Put simply, it's a powerful combination of autonomy, creativity, practicality, and a solid commitment to improving communities. YMCAs have always been flexible enough to change, to try new things, to be pioneers.

Above all, the YMCA movement is about people—all ages, races, religions and incomes. Forever mission-driven, Ys exist to mold the kind of people who care about each other, who are firm in their own sense of worth and that of others, who try to foster understanding and respect, who take responsibility for their own lives and help improve the lives of others.

Today, the nation's 2,400 YMCAs still provide vital services and serve as a force for hope. As we celebrate this rich history, we look forward to a bright future. Here's to another 150 years.

Credits

Kautz Family YMCA Archives