A Culture That Builds Strength
South Shore YMCA, Hanover Branch in Hanover, Mass.
By Dawn Klingensmith
The Hanover Branch of the South Shore YMCA in Hanover, Mass., has become a nationwide model for successfully carrying out the Y's time-honored mission of building strong kids, strong families and strong communities.
It was just over a decade ago when the YMCA bought a private tennis club and converted it to the Hanover Branch. Early on, the Y's fitness center had a separate area for kids with special youth-sized equipment, and it was only open for a short period after school.
At the same time, the Y's staff was redefining what it means to be "accessible" and "integrated," and questioning why children are so often "segregated," said Executive Director Jim Bunnell. Just this idea of full integration set the Y apart. But it's how the idea ultimately took shape that makes the Hanover Branch an exemplar of innovation.
"Four years ago, when we expanded the Health and Well-being Center, we envisioned adults and kids working out together," said Linda Montoya, sports and recreation director.
So they ditched what Bunnell calls the "miniature equipment" and shopped around for cardiovascular and weight-training machines that could be used by kids as young as 7. And though safety and liability concerns might have prevented other facilities from allowing kids to use full-size equipment amongst adults, the Hanover Y mitigated those concerns by implementing a training and certification program to teach kids how to properly use the machines.
As a result, certified kids as young as 7 enjoy full use of the fitness center when accompanied by an adult, and kids 10 and older have unlimited access without adult supervision. Since 2008, more than 5,000 kids ages 7 to 12 have been certified, and today over 85 percent of those kids still use the Y on a regular basis. There have been no injuries resulting from the open-access policy.
The certification process kicks off with an orientation that kids attend with their legal guardians, who sign consent forms. First, kids are trained to use the cardio machines and then tested. When they pass, they receive a sticker on their membership cards that gives them clearance to use the cardio equipment. They undergo a separate training program for the weight machines.
Empowering kids to take charge of their fitness has given the Y an opportunity to carry out its mission to build strong communities, as well. "It's amazing how inspirational young people are for older people. This is a way for kids to inspire Mom, Dad, their uncle, their neighbor and other adults in the community to come in and take advantage of all we have to offer," Bunnell said.
Indeed, the Hanover Y's membership and volunteer figures are impressive given the town's population is only 11,000. Membership stands at 21,000, and there are 800 registered volunteers. An average of 3,200 guests from Hanover and the surrounding area visit the facility daily.
For the Youth Strength and Cardiovascular certification program to be a success, it was necessary to find equipment that kids could safely and comfortably operate. The goal was to ensure that no less than 30 percent of the equipment in the 15,000-square-foot fitness area could be used by kids 3 feet 6 inches or taller.
The search led to Cybex International and Technogym, both of which manufacture exercise equipment that met the Y's requirements. Cybex makes a line of wheelchair-accessible machines that also happen to accommodate shorter users, Bunnell said, and Technogym makes a line of equipment that uses pneumatic resistance so there's no danger posed by heavy plates.
Catering to all body types, "Cybex is committed, first and foremost, to producing equipment that is both effective and safe, and biomechanically engineered for optimal results with minimal stress on the joints," said Al Rousseau, vice president of national accounts for Cybex.
As is evidenced by its success, the Hanover YMCA has much more to offer besides a kid-friendly workout facility. In 2002, the Hanover Expansion Program added an indoor aquatic center with a lap pool and recreational pool with a slide. Other new services included a child care center, family locker rooms, a whirlpool, tennis courts, a teen center and community meeting rooms.
The Y also has a robust arts and humanities program, thanks to a generous donor who had heard the South Shore described as a cultural wasteland and decided to spring into action. As a result, a $2 million performance space called the Emilson Arts Pavilion opened last year.
This is a Y that is successful by any standard. But what's more impressive, "it's become extremely successful in just 10 or 11 years," Bunnell said.
The Youth Strength and Cardiovascular Program is just one example of the Y's success, serving as inspiration to other facilities that are confronting the nationwide childhood obesity epidemic. "Since schools started to eliminate physical education, and parks and recreation departments have such thin budgets to work with, we felt we needed to step up and provide fitness opportunities," Bunnell said.
But more than access to capital or finding the right equipment, it was his team's commitment to integration and accessibility that made the program a success, Bunnell said.
In fact, he concluded, "It's not a program. It's a culture."
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