Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) of Greater Seattle -- Part 4: Renewal

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 4/16/2001
  • Essay 3101
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The Young Men's Christian Association of Greater Seattle entered the 1970s as an organization that was, as Board President Joe O. Ellis put it in the 1970 Annual Report, "beset with problems, seeking new challenges and opportunities, striving to be "with it" It was also an organization with a long history of adapting to changing conditions. This file, Part Four in a four-part HistoryLink essay on the history of the YMCA, looks at the YMCA's response to the challenges of recent years.

Turning Point

The Young Men's Christian Association of Greater Seattle has conducted three capital campaigns in the past 20 years. The first, initiated in 1981, fell $5 million short of its $12 million goal. The Y completed the planned projects, but had to borrow money to do it. A second campaign about 10 years later, with the more modest goal of $9.6 million, again fell short, by more than $2 million. In 1997, the YMCA set out to raise $14 million for another round of renovations, expansions, and new buildings. It exceeded that target by more than $2 million, in the most successful human services capital campaign in the region's history.

The outcome can be explained partly by timing: The last campaign coincided with an economic boom, and charitable giving tends to rise and fall with the Dow Jones stock averages. But it also reveals something about changes in public attitudes toward the YMCA. "What we were doing was viewed as both important and competent," says Cynthia P. Sonstelie, who co-chaired of the campaign with Chuck Armstrong. "The statistics we could produce about how good the Y was with kids, how fiscally responsible, the very low administrative costs. People who would come look at what we were doing were very generous" (Sonstelie Interview).

A symbolic turning point came in April 1982, when Bill Phillips, then chief executive officer, declared "victory" in the capital campaign that had begun the previous year, saying it was time to "quit talking about the $12 million goal and talk about the fact that we've raised $7 million" (The Letter). By that time, several programs implemented in the mid-1970s had flowered. Enrollment was up at Camp Orkila, which had recently been upgraded with $1 million worth of improvements. The YMCA had become the largest provider of licensed childcare in the state. There was a surge of interest in health and fitness facilities. The organization ended the year with a surplus, and has operated with balanced budgets every year since then.

New Partnerships

Just as the Depression of the 1930s led to closer relationships between the YMCA and other providers of social services, including churches, the financial strains of the 1970s and early 1980s encouraged new partnerships between the Y and businesses, schools, and other governmental agencies. Government grants and contracts became an increasingly important part of the YMCA's revenue, rising from less than 1 percent of income in 1970 to 26 percent by 1989 (dropping to about 12 percent in more recent years). This funding made it possible for the Y to expand some programs, such as daycare, while undertaking important new initiatives, aimed mostly at teenagers and at-risk youth.

One of the first beneficiaries of the new level of interagency cooperation was after-school childcare, started locally in 1975 as the "Latch Key" program at the Northeast Branch (now the University Family YMCA). By 1978, 10 branches were operating such programs, with staffing provided largely through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a federal jobs program. Joan Steberl, who joined the Eastside Branch as Latch Key director in 1976, credits CETA with allowing the YMCA to develop and provide quality child care programs at relatively low cost. When the support ended in the 1980s, the Y was forced to price its services "more realistically" and develop other resources to provide financial aid for those with low income. "The kind of care we provide does cost money," she says. "We subsidize it through United Way, private donations, working the best we can with state and city child care subsidies to maximize those dollars. But the reality is that we can't keep an operation if we're not paying our costs" (Steberl Interview).

Although the YMCA's modern child care program began with Latch Key, its roots can be traced back to the day camps established for the children of parents who worked in defense industries during World War II. Likewise, today's wide range of programs for troubled youth are similar in purpose, if not scope, to those in place as early as 1907. One key difference is the degree to which the newer programs are supported by the state Department of Children and Family Services and other governmental agencies. Transitional housing, therapeutic foster care, family counseling, and mental health programs represent the YMCA's expansion into state-funded social services.

A Helping Hand for the Young

One such program was a Youth Shelter, opened in 1977 on the second floor of the Downtown YMCA. The shelter was designed to provide emergency housing and intensive counseling for runaways, truants, and other "status offenders" (young people involved in acts that would not be considered crimes if committed by an adult). Caseworkers from the Youth Services Center and the state Department of Social and Health Services worked with YMCA social workers at the shelter. Although intended to be a facility for only short-term use, many teens ended up staying for six months or more because of the difficulty of finding other places for them to go. This led to a new approach, adopted in 1987, providing a "continuum of care," stretching from crisis intervention to independent living.

The downtown branch phased out the Youth Shelter in the late 1980s, putting more resources into developing its foster care program and, eventually, a smaller shelter serving up to 20 young adults for short-terms stays. "We had reached critical mass on the number of kids we could have living in the building," says Wendy Warman, associate executive for the Downtown YMCA from 1985 to 1997. "Philosophically, those kids needed homes. They needed to be deinstitutionalized. They needed experiences living in homes so they could move more successfully into the community." To support the foster children as they reached the age of emancipation, the YMCA implemented an Independent Living Program, providing "whatever it takes" to help its young clients learn to live safely on their own (Warman Interview).

The Y continues to provide transitional housing for young people, ages 18 to 21, through the Young Adults in Transition program, which includes 20 studio apartments in the newly renovated Downtown Branch. Columbia Court, a 13-unit apartment building for single-parent families, and Aloha House, a group home for teenage women on Capital Hill, both opened in 1990. Participants can stay for up to two years (or, in the case of Aloha House, until they reach the age of 18) and can receive a full range of services, from drug treatment to parenting classes.

These programs are complemented by the Seattle Rotary Education Center, established in 1989, one of a handful of state-certified centers for at-risk youth and young adults. Participants may choose a program aimed at earning a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or re-entering public school. YMCA staff members design an individualized program for each student, emphasizing small classes and one-to-one tutoring -- the same approach used in the Association Institute a century ago.

Another program initiative, launched in the late 1970s, centered on adult health and fitness. By 1983, the YMCA was operating on-site fitness programs for several major corporations, including Boeing and Rainier Bank, in addition to "satellite" fitness centers in downtown Seattle and Bellevue. The organization promised "a new approach to health education," incorporating nutrition, weight management, exercise, weight training, and sports. "With widespread competition, fitness leaders agreed the YMCA must demonstrate it offers a program like no other -- a program that focuses on the individual and stresses skill, fitness and enjoyment," the 1982 annual report pointed out. The Y subsequently decided it could not compete with commercial health clubs and fitness centers, and closed the satellites, although the "total health" concept has continued to guide its fitness programs to the present day.

The YMCA ushered in the 1990s by conducting a capital campaign that raised money to build new facilities at Northshore and Federal Way and renovate and expand Camp Orkila and the East Madison Branch. The campaign was not as successful as its organizers had hoped, forcing the Y to take on some short-term debt in order to complete all the planned projects. In one sense, that represented a failure, or at least a missed opportunity. But it also generated serious self-appraisal. One result was a new long-range plan, adopted in 1993, renewing the organization's commitment to five program areas: youth, families, health and fitness, older adults, and diversity in both staff and volunteers.

One manifestation of the new approach was a "Teen Initiative" that put full-time youth development workers in various branches of the YMCA and then in middle schools. The staff members connect with teens at schools and neighborhood functions and encourage their involvement in YMCA activities, from teen dances and late night drop-in programs to after-school enrichment classes and youth leadership programs. With the addition of 17 youth development directors since 1993, this program now reaches more than 13,000 teenagers a year.

The YMCA also succeeded in increasing diversity among its staff and among the thousands of volunteers who contribute their time and talents to the organization. Since its inception, the Seattle YMCA -- which had no paid staff at all during its first eight years -- has relied on volunteers. Today, some 1,500 people are employed by the Y, but more than 8,000 volunteers donate 130,000 hours of service annually, guiding policies, serving on committees, supporting programs, and raising money.

Stepping Up For Kids

In late 1997, about 300 volunteers asked the Greater Seattle community to "Step Up For Kids," in the most ambitious capital campaign in the YMCA's history. Record-breaking pledges, together with the sale of excess development rights and tax credits, allowed the Y to complete, in 2000, all the planned additions and improvements to the University Family, Downtown, and Bellevue Family branches and at Camp Orkila, with minimal impact on its reserves. Projects intended for 2001 and beyond include a new branch in south Snohomish County and initial steps toward a future facility on the Sammamish Plateau. The most ambitious project was the year-long renovation and expansion of the 70-year-old Downtown YMCA. The building's historic exterior -- with its brick walls, terra cotta embellishments, leaded glass windows, peaked cooper roof, and the cornerstone that Thomas S. Lippy helped lay -- was preserved, along with many of the beloved interior features on the lower floor, including tile floors and vintage wooden phone booths.

As was the style in 1930, the building had been shaped like a "U," with the inside rooms facing into a light well. By constructing a west-facing wall and filling in the light well, the YMCA gained 20,000 square feet of additional space. This compensated for some of the space lost when the adjacent building, built for the YMCA in 1907, was demolished and the land sold. In April 2000, the downtown building reopened to house the Downtown and Metrocenter branches, Camping Services, YMCA of Greater Seattle offices, and a broad range of other services. New features include the Gates Youth Development Center (made possible by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), 20 studio apartments for homeless young people, a larger and more accessible swimming pool, and expanded health and fitness facilities for people of all ages and abilities.

What was lost was the former residence hall and its 160 low-cost rooms. The operation of what had essentially become a hotel, serving primarily a transient adult clientele, no longer fit with the YMCA's renewed emphasis on youth, as reflected in its latest mission statement: "Building a community where individuals, especially the young, are encouraged to develop their fullest potential in spirit, mind and body."

The YMCA today is a mix of the old (swimming, exercise classes, summer camp, sports leagues, crafts); the new (including the Patsy Collins leadership program for middle school girls); and old programs with new names (such as Young Adults in Transition, providing housing and other services for troubled youth). The YMCA is the Earth Service Corps for high school students, pioneered by Metrocenter in 1989 and since adopted by YMCAs throughout the United States. It is Y-Guides for children and their parents, implemented in Seattle in the 1940s as the Y-Indian Guides (recently renamed out of respect for Native American culture). It is youth sports, involving both boys and girls from preschoolers to teens but modeled after the same concept of sportsmanship and ethics that Lippy emphasized as the YMCA's physical education director in the 1890s.

One hundred and twenty five years after it was founded, the YMCA of Greater Seattle is the largest private human services agency in the region, serving more than 154,000 different people through its 15 branches, three residential camps, and programs at more than 200 other sites (including schools, community centers and churches) and an annual budget of more than $41 million.

The organization has succeeded because it has remained flexible. Its leaders no longer debate such issues as whether going to the theater will cost a man his soul. But its admirers also value the ways in which it has not changed. "There are so many people around town who grew up with the Y, in the Y's pools and gyms and basketball courts," says Priscilla "Patsy" Bullitt Collins, a longtime supporter. "In years to come people will be remembering the computer classes they took at the Y. The thing I most appreciate about the Y today is what it does for the development of character and maturity in boys and girls. I hope that in the future, the Y just keeps doing more of the same" (Collins Interview).


The Letter, March 1992; Cassandra Tate Interview with Cindy Sonstelie, January 22, 2001; Cassandra Tate Interview with Joan Steberl, February 18, 2001; Cassandra Tate Interview with Wendy Warman, February 23, 2001; Cassandra Tate Interview with Priscilla ("Patsy") Bullitt Collins, January 16, 2001.

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