Together We Grow

Lakeland’s YMCA builds community by building an intentional culture

photography by Jason Stephens

The YMCA’s rich 171-year history and vast cultural reach are a prime example of how positivity and intentionality can change a community.
Today, the Y is a household name that can be placed alongside giants like Apple, Disney, Starbucks, and Google when comparing companies whose intentional focus on culture is of the utmost importance.

Through intentional influence and cultural appropriation, Y programming has become a part of our everyday lives. Summer camp, basketball, volleyball, Campfire Girls (a precursor to the Girl Scouts), and swim lessons all began at a YMCA. In the 1960s, the Peace Corps was modeled after a Y program. In the 1970s, the Y saw a need for quality childcare services and transformed the idea of childcare through their programming. Subsequently, the Y became the largest provider of childcare in the United States. Currently, the Y engages more than 10,000 neighborhoods in the United States and millions of people as our country’s largest nonprofit committed to helping their community learn, grow, and thrive (ymca.net/history).

Lakeland’s local Y association is considered a midsized Y even though there are three branches in Lakeland alone. The Lakeland Family YMCA, Fontaine Gills YMCA, and Par 3 serve nearly 15,000 Lakelanders in more than 50 programs. This extensive reach is the product of intentional community-based planning and programming by the YMCA of West Central Florida throughout the last 50 years.

The Lakeland Y got its start in the late 1950s through the efforts of local volunteers uniting their voices to petition the National Y. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that a small Y opened in a downtown Lakeland storefront on Kentucky Avenue. In this original location, the Y held day camps and exercise classes, and rented local pools in which to hold swim lessons.

Ten years later, a capital campaign led by George Jenkins and Wogie Badcock raised more than $1 million and made it possible to purchase the land on Cleveland Heights where the Lakeland Family Y sits today. Over the next 40 years, the Lakeland Family Y was slowly built while the Y’s leadership observed this community and the needs within it.

In the 1980s, racquetball courts, the women’s fitness center, and the gymnastics centers were built. As Lakeland grew to see and appreciate how the community benefitted from the local Y, talks of adding a branch in North Lakeland began. By the early 1990s, in a storefront off of Socrum Loop, the North Lakeland Y was opened. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, under the direction of CEO Alice Slack Collins, the YMCA of West Central Florida grew in programming and locations. During this period, the Lakeland Family Y expanded the facilities and got a facelift thanks to a $4-million campaign, most of which was raised by members of Lakeland’s Y and the greater Lakeland community.

The Y’s longevity as an organization is an interesting cultural phenomenon. To many, the Y is “just a gym.” The truth is, however, that the Y is so much more because of its overarching philosophy of health and fitness which include not only the body but also the spirit and mind. For members of all ages, from infants to seniors, the Y is a part of daily life. It provides a home away from home where members see their friends and neighbors while also bettering themselves and others.

While visiting the Lakeland Y, I spoke with Kirk Eich, the newest CEO of the YMCA of West Central Florida, and Brian Hernandez, director of operations for the Lakeland Family Y. Years ago, Hernandez and I worked together as Y camp managers. Since that time, he has dedicated himself to the Y’s culture and mission,working in everything from sports to teens. The current sports coordinator, Jake Putnam, is also an employee who, like Hernandez, started as parttime staff. This dedication to the job isn’t rare among Y staff. Many of the employees started as part-timers and dedicated a lifetime of service to the Y. Now running Community Initiatives, Dorothy Cheshire started as a women’s fitness instructor and has worked for the Y for over 30 years. Her daughter, Stacy Walsh, has worked for the Y since she was 14 and currently does marketing for the YMCA of West Central Florida.

Eich has a similar story of starting with the Y in 1984, being drawn to the Y’s culture, and committing to it. He moved to the area just a
few years ago from Athens, Georgia, where he was also the executive director of a Y. He’s still learning about Lakeland and the surrounding
area, but he already has big dreams for where the Y and the Lakeland community can go together. He explains, “My mom always wanted me to be a pastor. The Y is like a ministry in that we have the opportunity to set the tone, philosophy, and mission of what we do.”

While talking with Hernandez and Eich, it’s easy to get inspired about the mission.

“[Modern life is] full of junk; having healthy competition is so great,” Eich says.

“Every year, our Y gives away over $200,000 [in scholarships] to families that need it, making a healthy lifestyle accessible to everyone. No one knows who these families are. They come in and are just like everyone else, and they have a chance to develop a healthy lifestyle,” Hernandez says.

The Y’s expansive programming reach is impressive. After-school care, Leaders Club, Youth in Government, and Voluntary Pre-K are just a few of the programs the Y offers. The First Tee program has seen more than 1,000 kids already this year. Additionally, 1,600 kids have received free swim lessons with the help of the Lakeland Rotary Club, the school board, and other local partnerships. If there’s a need in the community, the Y is willing to act on it.

“I think what we’re doing now is good, but I think the future for us is very bright,” Eich states in his enthusiastic way that shows that he’s grounded but also thinking intently about the future. Hernandez nods emphatically in agreement. They are two members of a much larger team of employees, all on the same page when it comes to thinking of the good of our community.

After meeting with Eich, Hernandez gave me a tour of the Lakeland family Y and showed me the changes that have been made to the facility in the last few years. The weight room was rearranged to be more welcoming and accessible to new members. Walls were repainted, and inspirational quotes and videos grace the hallways. Spin classrooms were added, and gymnastics rooms have been
improved. Childcare is no longer a place for kids just to hang out, but intentional programming has been added to make participants’ time engaging and productive. Everything is handled with care, and the result shows in the smiles of the staff and the Y participants.

Eich, Hernandez, and the staff are thankful for the last 50 years and the effect that the Y has had on their lives, as well as the lives in our community that have been changed by the Y’s mission. They eagerly look forward to the next 50 years and are ardently planning how the Y can be sustainable as it reflects the community around it. Innovation and impact are central to the Y’s culture. In 50 years it will more than likely be central to Lakeland’s culture, too, thanks in part to the hard work and dedication of the Y.