Over generations, YMCA has evolved to meet changing community needs

I tend to shy away from participating in telephone surveys, but when South Sound YMCA board member John Parry called me at work five months ago, I couldn't resist.

He said I was one of 45 people selected by YMCA officials to help shape a strategic plan to guide YMCA operations for the next five years. All I had to do was take about 15 minutes to answer a set of questions.

I offered my two cents’ worth, then asked Parry to share with me the final product when it was completed this fall.

Parry, a retired South Sound banker, followed through, setting up a recent meeting involving himself, fellow board member Dick Wadley and South Sound YMCA Chief Executive Officer and President Mike West.

I learned a lot about this community asset that tends to maintain a low-key profile while, at the same time, serving the recreational, health and leadership needs of South Sound youth, families and seniors. For instance:

 • The Olympia chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association incorporated in 1892 and will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of its downtown Olympia building next year.

 • The Y is the largest day-care provider in Thurston County, serving 1,200 children at 36 school sites throughout the county.

 • Membership stands at nearly 26,000, with the largest age groups ages 6-11 and 30-54.

 • In 2008, nearly 7,500 people received more than $800,000 in direct financial assistance for membership and/or programs.

“No one is turned away based on inability to pay,” West said.

The new strategic plan calls on the YMCA to:

 • Increase its efforts to help people live healthier lives, everyone from children with obesity problems to seniors recovering from heart disease or cancer.

 • Build new partnerships with other community nonprofit groups to serve the less-fortunate members of the community.

 • Provide more programs and services for youths and teens to develop the next generation of civic-minded leaders.

As I listened to the YMCA officials share their story and vision of the future, I reminisced about the Dodge family connections to the South Sound YMCA.

My grandfather, John R. Dodge, was a YMCA boys committee chairman in the 1920s and donated to the nonprofit group 7 acres of Henderson Inlet waterfront property on the west side of Johnson Point for use as a YMCA summer boys camp, beginning in 1924.

Camp Dodge included three bunkhouses, a cook shack, a dock and rowboats that the boys, ages 10-16, rowed to Harstine Island to dig geoducks and other clams.

There was no road to the property, so campers accessed it via a trail from the end of Hollopeter Road. The property was sold by the YMCA to a private party in 1940.

In the early 1960s, my father, another John R. Dodge, and I, the third and final John R. Dodge, would head to the downtown Olympia YMCA many Wednesday winter nights to play in pickup basketball games, followed by a soak in the locker room steam bath.

Then it was off to Ben Moore’s for a steak dinner served on a piping hot metal plate. It was a father-son ritual that I cherish to this day.

In the 1980s, I joined the YMCA again. The main attraction for me was the noon-hour pickup basketball games. The games sometimes were sloppy, but they always were spirited and hard-fought because the winning team got to stay on the floor and keep playing until it lost.

As nagging basketball injuries piled up and The Olympian switched from an afternoon to a morning paper in 1988, my desire and ability to spend an extended lunch hour at the Y disappeared.

I joined those 40 percent or so of members who let their Y memberships lapse each year.

On Friday, I toured the downtown YMCA, motivated by a mix of curiosity and nostalgia. The noon basketball games are a thing of the past; they’ve moved to the Briggs Community Branch, which opened in 1997.

The pool was refurbished, but the chlorine smell and high walls reminded me of the many hours I spent swimming there as a boy.

The steam room has been rebuilt but still occupies the space next to the men’s locker room.

The lobby remains a gathering place for Y members, but the fast-food and soda pop vending machines were removed four years ago.

“They didn’t work with the theme of a healthy lifestyle,” West said.

The downstairs fitness center has been expanded and given way to more rowing, treadmill and elliptical machines to aid cardio workouts.

The more things change, the more things stay the same, I thought as I walked down the steps and outside the downtown Olympia YMCA.

Then another thought crossed my mind: In one more year, I’ll qualify for the YMCA senior-citizen discount membership.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444