The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in London, England on June 6, 1844, in response to unhealthy social conditions arising in the big cities at the end of the Industrial Revolution. George Williams, born on a farm in 1821, came to London as a sales assistant in a draper’s shop, a forerunner of today’s department store. He and a group of fellow drapers organized the first YMCA to substitute Bible study and prayer for life on the streets. By 1851 there were 24 YMCAs in Great Britain, with a combined membership of 2,700. That same year the Y arrived in North America, first in Montreal and then Boston. A Boston sea captain and missionary, Thomas Valentine Sullivan, was inspired by stories of the YMCA in England. With six colleagues, Sullivan called the first meeting leading to a constitution, and on December 29, 1851, the YMCA began at the Old South Church in Boston.
In the United States during the Civil War, Y membership shrunk to one-third its size as members marched off to battle. Fifteen of the remaining Northern YMCAs formed the U.S. Christian Commission to assist the troops and prisoners of war. It was endorsed by President Abraham Lincoln, and its 4,859 volunteers included the American poet Walt Whitman. Among other accomplishments, it gave more than 1 million Bibles to fighting men. It was the beginning of a commitment to working with soldiers and sailors that continues to this day through the Armed Services YMCAs.
In 1866, the influential New York YMCA adopted a fourfold purpose: “The improvement of the spiritual, mental, social and physical condition of young men.” In the 1880s, YMCAs began putting up buildings in large numbers. Gyms and swimming pools came in at that time too, along with big auditoriums and bowling alleys. Hotel-like rooms with bathrooms down the hall, called dormitories or residences, were designed into every new YMCA building, and would continue to be until the late 1950s. YMCAs took up boys work and organized summer camps. They set up exercise drills in classes—forerunners of today’s aerobics—using wooden dumbbells, heavy medicine balls and so-called Indian clubs, which resembled graceful, long-necked bowling pins. YMCAs organized college students for social action, invented the games of basketball and volleyball and served the special needs of railroad men who had no place to stay when the train reached the end of the line. By the 1890s, the fourfold purpose was transformed into the triangle of spirit, mind and body.
The United States entered World War I in April 1917. YMCA’s ran the military canteens, called post exchanges today, in the United States and France. YMCAs led fundraising campaigns that raised $235 million for those YMCA operations and other wartime causes, and hired 25,926 Y workers—5,145 of them women—to run the canteens.
Forced to re-evaluate themselves by hard times during the Great Depression, community YMCAs became aware of social problems as never before and accelerated their partnerships with other social welfare agencies. YMCA’s were forced to prove to their communities that both character-building agencies and welfare agencies were needed, especially in times of stress.
During World War II, the National Council of YMCAs (now the YMCA of the USA) joined with YMCAs around the world to assist prisoners of war in 36 nations. It also helped form the United Service Organization (USO), which ran drop-in centers for service people and sent performers abroad to entertain the troops. At the close of the war, YMCAs had changed. Sixty-two percent were admitting women, and other barriers began to fall one after the other, with families the new emphasis, and all races and religions included at all levels of the organization.
In what could be called the Great Disillusion of 1965-1975, the nation was rocked by turmoil that included the Vietnam War, the forced resignation of a U.S. president, the outbreak of widespread drug abuse among the middle class, assassination of major political leaders, and a loss of confidence in institutions. With national YMCA support and federal aid, new outreach efforts were taken up by community YMCAs in 150 cities. The Ys poured their own money and talent into outreach as well. Outreach programs were not new to the organization, but the size and scope involved were new. Y leaders were urged to become more businesslike in both their appearance and their operations, a topic raised by Y boards since the 1920s.
After 1975, the old physical programming featured by YMCAs for a century began to perk up as interest in healthy lifestyles increased nationwide. By 1980, pressure for up-to-date buildings and equipment brought on a boom in construction that lasted through the decade. Child care for working parents, an extension of what YMCAs had done informally for years, came with a rush in 1983 and quickly joined health and fitness, camping and residences as a major source of YMCA income.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, the ideas of “values clarification” were slowly replaced by ideas of “character.” The moral upbringing of children had been considered the sole domain of the family, and enabling the child to discover his or her own ethical system was the goal. But by the mid to late ‘80s, this was seen as contributing to a morally bankrupt society. The YMCA movement had been involved in character development from the beginning, but in an implicit and practical focus rather than an explicit one. The YMCA movement studied the issue and emerged with four “core values”—caring, honesty, respect and responsibility—and promptly began to incorporate these in all programming in an explicit and conscious way.
During the ‘90s, a tremendous change occurred in the field of youth development. Previously, the focus had been on the “deficit model,” in other words, what went wrong with the youth who got into trouble, and how could they be corrected. Youth workers and academics started to look at what contributes to healthy development and prevents problems—an “assets model.” YMCA of the USA collaborated with Search Institute on studying this issue in depth and coming up with practical results. The research showed 30 (later increased to 40) developmental assets that positively correlated with pro-social and healthy behaviors in youth, and negatively correlated with anti-social and unhealthy behaviors. The more assets a youth has, the more likely he or she is to behave well, the less likely to engage in risky behaviors. This not only provided a “road map” for YMCAs to follow in creating healthy kids, families and communities, but also was an inherent proof of the effectiveness of youth programs.