This is a tough time.
I’m hurt, disappointed and am feeling pain like many of my Vestavia Hills YMCA friends.
On May 17, The YMCA of Greater Birmingham abruptly announced it was closing our community branch at the end of the summer.
The announcement left me and my many YMCA friends in shock and disbelief.
I received no e-mail or letter in advance—I read about it on line in the Birmingham Business Journal.
I am a YMCA person
I believe in the YMCA mission.
I’ve been a member the Birmingham YMCA for 53 years—likely longer than any other person alive.
I served on the board of the Downtown YMCA Branch and as President. I was the first fundraising chairperson for the YMCA ‘Kids Campaign’ that has raised millions of dollars for low income children. And I later served on the board of the Greater Birmingham YMCA.
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life either working out at or working on the YMCA.
During those years I’ve witnessed profound change.
For those who don’t know, YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association—which is truly remarkable since our members are not necessarily young, men, or Christian.
When I first joined the Y, there was an ‘all black’ branch on 8th Avenue North. No African-Americans were allowed at other branches.
At the original downtown YMCA on 20th Street North, open showers were located alongside the indoor swimming pool. Men and boys swam au naturel.
Men played handball on the roof in their jockey straps and sunbathed unclothed. When tall buildings were built around the Y, neighbors complained—and the men had to adjust accordingly.
I was at the downtown branch the day the first woman joined–men stood around and gawked–some quit.
Yes, there have been extraordinary changes at the Y—but always in the name of progress.
That is not the case with the Vestavia Hills Y.
Vestavia YMCA branch totally mismanaged
When my wife and I moved to Vestavia Hills, I was thrilled because there was a YMCA a mile from our house.
But it quickly became clear that this smaller, more intimate community Y was being treated as a second class citizen.
I watched in dismay as good employees quit or were promoted to bigger Y’s.
The building aged and when equipment broke it was not replaced or repaired promptly.
When members made reasonable requests, we were told bluntly by the staff that we are a small facility and the YMCA system would not support us.
We lost our membership director and were not given a replacement. How is a facility to recruit new members when no one has responsibility?
When discussing the YMCA situation with a friend who lives near the Y, and I was surprised when she told me she wasn’t aware the Y has an outdoor pool.
But how could she know? I don’t know of any recent mailers or social media posts promoting our facility, pool, or programming.
Through the years, I met with Vestavia YMCA directors to suggest ideas—many which would cost nothing. None were ever implemented.
The Vestavia YMCA used to be open on Sundays from 10 am-5 pm. But then the management made the shortsighted decision to close on Sundays and we lost over 100 members in one week. After the disaster, the YMCA opened again, but the damage had been done.
The Vestavia Hills Y is a gem
Our Vestavia YMCA is more than an exercise facility.
We are a community.
We are a family.
We are diverse–servicing old, young, male, female, black, white, Latino, Asian, etc.
The Vestavia branch represents all the core values you’d expect from a YMCA.
Many of our members are seniors and their social life revolves around the Y.
In the morning, the facility is jam packed with older adults. You can hear their laughter all over the building as they drink coffee and joke with one another.
The closing of the Y could have been avoided
Dan Pile, the president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Birmingham told al.com, “A decline in both use of the facility and demand for the programs offered there and the facility’s need for extensive maintenance and repairs ultimately led to the decision.”
Since the Y spent virtually nothing on its building, equipment, or personnel for many years, what would you expect?
If you almost starve a child to death, then I guess you can rationalize that it’s now okay to finish the kid off.
Bottom line is that the YMCA management thought of the Vestavia branch as second rate and treated it that way. The resulting implosion was self-imposed.
Is there hope?
Managed properly and with a little help from our community, maybe our little old Y could be revived.
Our YMCA is important to Vestavia. Maybe the City of Vestavia would consider chipping in? (Do you know anyone on the City Council or the Mayor?)
Some of the media reported the event by publishing bits and pieces of the press release distributed by the YMCA, but no one took the time to interview the long term members.
This is a big story for our community–and no one seems to be paying attention.
We somehow saved UAB football; maybe we can find a way to save our community YMCA.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org