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More Than a Place: The Y is a Purpose

YMCA of Greater Des Moines

April 12, 2024

As part of our current strategic planning process, the Y is conducting a Community Needs Assessment. We are inviting everyone in the region to share their feedback regarding a wide variety of issues and needs facing DSM communities through an anonymous survey. How well are we doing, as a community, in meeting these needs? Where should our priorities lie going forward?

Cameron L. Nicholson

A History of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines

In 1868 — just three years after the conclusion of the Civil War — a group of Greater Des Moines (DSM) business leaders met to discuss the formation of an organization to provide for the material and spiritual needs of the city’s poor and working-class residents.

They modeled their new organization after one created 24 years earlier in London, England by a 22-year-old department store worker named George Williams, who saw the need for a place where young men could seek refuge from the turmoil of life in industrialized London. Williams and a few friends formed the Young Men’s Christian Association, an idea that arrived on U.S. shores in 1851 and was quickly spreading throughout the land.

The YMCA of Greater Des Moines, with 100 members, began meeting in Downtown Des Moines (DSM). Early meetings consisted of prayers, bible study, street preaching and raising funds for the needy. In 1881, the YMCA was instrumental in the founding of Drake University and added adult education classes in reading and writing to its list of programs.

In 1912, the community came together to raise $75,000 within a few days for the construction of the first dedicated YMCA facility at 4th Street and Keo Way (now Watson Powell Jr. Way). The building included a gymnasium and an indoor pool, reflecting the growing demand for recreational opportunities to encourage healthy living and offered housing for those who needed it.

Youth Development, Healthy Living and Social Responsibility at the YMCA

Today, the YMCA of Greater Des Moines remains committed to its founding mission of putting Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all. A nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, the Y serves people throughout the region of every age, background, ability and income level. Our efforts are focused in the areas of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility to ensure that every member of our community has a place to grow and the opportunity to achieve their life goals.

Community-Based Programming

Much has changed in our community over the last 156 years, and the Y has changed over time as well. The association that is the YMCA of Greater Des Moines is made up of four YMCA fitness communities, Y Camp near Boone, the YMCA Supportive Housing campus in Downtown DSM and a childcare services division that provides community-based programs for before- and afterschool care, summer learning loss prevention, summer day camp and more. Thanks to the generosity of our members, donors and the community, all these programs are made available free or at reduced cost to those who otherwise would not be able to afford them.

Perhaps you or members of your family grew up playing basketball, taking swimming lessons at the Y or attending overnight camp during the summer. Perhaps you’re among the 23,000 members (thank you!) who work out at the Y or attend one of hundreds of group exercise classes offered each week. Or you might be one of thousands of donors and volunteers who give of their time and resources so others can have these opportunities (thank you, too!). Whatever your connection to the Y, we think it’s important for the community to know that the Y is much more than a place — we’re a purpose. Just ask these individuals:

  • Marissa, a single mother of two, needed after-school childcare for her son and daughter so she could work. The YMCA program at King Elementary in Des Moines met her needs, and then some. “Both my children struggle with math and reading. When they need guidance academically, Y staff help them understand the skills being taught in their classwork. They even brought in tutors to help. I can’t say enough about this program and its staff.”
  • Jenna, a fifth grader, experienced the life-changing impact of a summer experience at Y Camp. She made new friends, tried new activities — climbing the rock wall and riding horses were favorites — and developed leadership skills. Jenna’s mother said her daughter returned from camp more confident, honest, trusting and respectful.
  • Chom discovered a passion for pickleball at the Y. But for her, it’s not just a game. “The Y pickleball players have become friends on and off the courts. We’re a huge family who care about each other and the community. I am so thankful the Y exists because it has brought so many of us together.”
  • For Vika, the YMCA Supportive Housing Campus provides hope, dignity, support and a place to call home. “The Y has given me a fresh start and the chance to address my medical issues, which was hard to do while living outside.”
  • Robert joined the YMCA’s Fatherhood Program after serving 11 years in a correctional setting and is now a program facilitator. “I learned how to reconnect with my children and resolve conflicts with their mother. I have become a better man because of the sessions I have attended.”
  • Esme, a student at Findlay Elementary in Des Moines, joined the Girls On the Run program sponsored by the YMCA so she could hang out with her friends. She’s now the proud owner of a medal for finishing the season-ending 5K run. What did she learn in the program? “To never give up on myself and always keep going.” What does she like about herself? “Everything!”
  • The John R. Grubb Community YMCA, located in one of the city’s most economically challenged areas, has been a home-away-from-home for neighborhood kids who flock to its youth programs. Galat, whose family moved to Des Moines from South Sudan when he was 10, found friends and adult mentors who helped him on his way to becoming a first-generation college graduate. Shareece grew up playing basketball at the Grubb Y and later became a staff member. After earning her master’s degree, she joined the basketball coaching staff at Mount Mercy University.

For Marissa, Jenna, Chom, Vika, Robert, Esme, Galat, Shareece and thousands more, the Y has been a difference-maker, opening doors and fostering connections to help them unlock the potential that lies within all of us.

And the Y’s contribution to strengthening community doesn’t stop with its social impact; our presence in the community has an economic impact as well. Our 667 employees (the equivalent of 287 full-time positions) live and work in DSM, spending an estimated $17-20 million annually on housing, utilities, medical care, groceries, education, recreation, insurance and personal services. Our employees account for an estimated $2.1 million in federal, state and local taxes paid every year, and nearly half a million dollars in personal savings added to the economy. Plus, the Y spends nearly $4 million annually in payments to local suppliers and other businesses, indirectly affecting the creation of an additional 121 jobs.

YMCA of Greater Des Moines

With the 2018 completion of the MidAmerican Energy Company Aquatic Center at the Wellmark YMCA, the city now has a world-class aquatic facility to attract regional, state, national and international events to downtown. In 2018-19, its first full year of operation, the aquatic center hosted events that contributed an estimated $11.8 million to the Des Moines economy. The pandemic was a temporary setback for event venues of all kinds, but the YMCA aquatic facility has bounced back better than ever. Most weekends, the Prairie Meadows 50-meter competition pool is filled with athletes vying for titles and person bests, while the stands are filled with families who travel to the region and spend money on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, groceries, gasoline and other items in support of their swimmers. An updated economic impact study is underway, and we anticipate the aquatic center’s contribution to economic development will be significantly greater than it was in 2019.

The Y is justifiably proud of our history and all that we continue to do to improve the lives of individuals and families and make Greater Des Moines a healthier, more vibrant place to live, work and play. Working throughout the community on a daily basis, we recognize the needs are great:

  • There is a critical shortage of quality, affordable childcare and out-of-school-time care
  • One in five kids can’t read at grade level by third grade, and children from low-income household are at the greatest risk of falling behind their peers
  • 2,700 Iowans experience homelessness each year
  • Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1-4, and the second-leading cause of accidental death for all children
  • One in four children live in households without a father present
  • For seniors, social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%
  • Half of girls ages 10-13 experience bullying

The list goes on. YMCA members, donors and volunteers have been generous with their contributions, but like most nonprofits, the Y must prioritize and direct its efforts to areas where it can have the most impact on the greatest number of people. That’s why we’re turning to the community for input.

Click on this link to take the anonymous survey. It requires only a few minutes of your time to complete and will provide valuable information to assist the Y in planning for the future.

Thank you for joining me in creating spaces in our community where everyone feels safe, supported and respected.

With the #7 Lowest Cost of Living in the U.S. and a Top Metro for Number of Economic Development Projects (among metros with a population of 200,000 to 1 million), Greater Des Moines (DSM) is a region where you can have it all. Learn more about what it’s like to live here.

Cameron L. Nicholson

Cameron L. Nicholson was named President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines in 2023. He held leadership positions at YMCAs in Chicago, Ill. and Charlotte, N.C. prior to joining the Des Moines Y association in 2012.