A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE YMCA
The Industrial Revolution was a time of great innovation and growth, but also was a time of social decay for the working class. In London, young men slept in dirty, crowded rooms, while outside the filthy streets were filled with thieves, hooligans, criminals, and abandoned children. George Williams looked at the state of society and knew something had to be done. On June 6th, 1844, with a strong belief in his faith, Mr. Williams founded the YMCA as a Bible Study group that met to pray for life on the streets.
Within ten years, more than 20 YMCA’s had been formed across Great Brittan, and had even spread to the United States, with the first Y opening in Boston in 1851. One of the founding tenants, access to all, eventually led the YMCA to include all men, women, and children, regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
The Y’s commitment to service men and women can be traced back as far as the Civil War. With the war, US Y’s saw a massive decline in membership as men left home for the front lines. The Y responded, offering assistance to troops and prisoners of war as well as mobilizing volunteers to pass out more than 1 million bibles to soldiers. During World War I, the Y launched a massive war relief fund war refugees and prisoners of war, as well as worked to make the transition for African American soldiers from fighter to civilian in a segregated South. World War II brought even more strife for families, and once again the Y responded. Throughout the war, the Y assisted prisoners of war in 36 countries, helped form the USO (which still sends performers abroad to entertain the troops), and sent workers oversees to help rebuild damaged areas. Commitment to the community, both locally and globally, has always been a driving force behind the YMCA.
Locally, the Y movement has grown out of a community call for a spot not merely for people to go and work out, but a gathering place for our youth, families, and senior citizens alike. After decades of discussion, dating back as far as the 1920’s, the city of Kearney made initial contact with the National YMCA to find out what exactly it would take to build a Y. After a year of negotiation, the Kearney Y received its provisional charter on June 10, 1988. The first two donations ever made to the Kearney Y came in June of the same year from Nina Hammer and the Ford/New Holland Corporation under Roger Wakelin.
In the late 1980’s Scott Morris donated a building downtown, giving us our first physical location. Known as “The Storefront”, this little building had a few offices and a large multi-purpose room. The room was used for everything from youth camps to step classes. As cozy as the building was, it soon became clear that we would soon need more space!
Construction began at the new site in the spring of 1993 following an extensive capital campaign to determine community support for a new location and to raise the necessary funds. This site, located at 4500 6th Ave was built on a 10.3 acre swath of land donated by Calvin Johnson of Hastings Nebraska. Six acres remain for outdoor fields, where thousands of kids have played flag football, soccer, and t-ball.
Within a few years, our membership base had grown to over 5000 members and it was time to expand again. Using the funds from yet another Capital Campaign, the Y was able to add the Family Center, The Super Gym, the Ron and Carol Cope Child Development Center, and a board room. We were also able to change the location of our front entry, remodel the fitness center and add additional special needs/family changing rooms and restrooms. The ground breaking ceremony was held in the spring of 2000.
Over the last 20 years our membership base has grown to over 5000 members. Thousands of children have participated in youth sports and thousands more have learned to swim. We have seen our members reshape their lives and we have actively reshaped the community in return. What is perhaps most amazing about the last twenty years is the countless hours of volunteer time dedicated by so many people at various stages of the Y’s journey. From the early fledgling days of our programing, auctions, spirit runs, and basketball tournaments, to the tireless hours of the people on the building committee insuring that every single brick, tile, and beam was the highest quality and would last for generations, to the volunteers and interns that help with day to day operations today, the support of the Kearney Y has been absolutely incredible. It is safe to say we wouldn’t be here today without the Community.