In the Y, we often say, “If you’ve seen one Y, you’ve seen ONE Y.” The fact that Y's are not built or programmed in a cookie-cutter fashion is one of the many things I love about the Y. Over nearly 30 years, I’ve worked in starter Y's no bigger than a racquetball court and large family centers over 100,000 sq. ft. I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity to learn a bit about the international reach of the Y and how a humble organization founded in 1844 in England has grown to become an innovative international movement.
While I worked for the Miami (FL) YMCA, I met a great guy named Murat who worked for the Kosovo YMCA. Murat had been spending some time stateside and was looking for an opportunity to engage with our local Y and learn more about what we do. Admittedly, I was just as interested in his work in Kosovo and the role his Y was serving in a war-torn region of Europe. Murat was quick to make sure I knew that their focus was on the job training for young adults while also helping their local residents be more efficient with farming and land management. We soon developed a friendship that continued for a few years, learning about our respective YMCA’s priorities and passions.
Years later in Pittsburgh, we were honored to sponsor a group of teens from our Homewood YMCA to the YMCA Europe Festival in Prague. Homewood was like many of the communities I’ve been privileged to represent – proud, historic, and greatly under-resourced. The local schools struggled to support the needs of its students, but the YMCA's Lighthouse Program served as a critical partner in helping to prepare the students for life after graduation. Seeing the impact that the Prague trip made on these kids and hearing their stories about how the experience changed their lives remains one of the prouder experiences of my career. This international experience opened their eyes to a world unknown to them and helped them to make connections with other young Y leaders across the world.
Today, we're all consumed with the unfortunate events occurring in Ukraine. Each day this week, my morning school drop-offs with my nine-year-old have been centered on helping her comprehend what is happening and why. She approaches it with the innocence of youth. She wonders how the kids feel in Ukraine and what the kids in Russia are thinking too. It’s hard to explain the WHY of war to her, and I’m somewhat comforted by her lack of understanding for any of the rationale that I struggle to make.
I’m pleased to share that the international reach of the Y stretches into Ukraine. Originally established in 1902 and later banned from 1917 to 1991, the current Ukraine Y was reorganized in 1993. Today, that YMCA, focused on much of the same work that Murat’s Y was committed to, is being supported directly by YMCA's in Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Germany. Stateside, YMCA's here are supporting the tremendous needs of the Ukrainian people through the support of YMCA World Service.
From all this, I reflect on a few key thoughts…
- It’s our differences that draw us closer to each other and make us strong.
- Communities like Homewood exist in every city, and I’ve never seen the needs of those communities go unrecognized and unsupported by those with the means to affect change.
- Crises bring out the best in each of us. We never sit by and idly watch our fellow man suffer.
If you feel so inclined to support our brother and sister Y's in Europe as they provide direct and critical support to the people of Ukraine, please consider a gift to YMCA World Service at https://www.ymca.org/Crisis-in-Ukraine.
Until next time…
Kevin Bolding, President & CEO
YMCA of Central Florida
The Y. For a better us.®