Westfield Area YMCA Celebrates 100 Years of Community Service
In 2023, the Westfield Area YMCA proudly celebrates its 100th anniversary of service to the community. As a nonprofit human service organization, the Y is dedicated to the communities of Westfield, Cranford, Garwood and Mountainside.
But the history of establishing a local YMCA actually began in the 1800s. In fact, there were two prior attempts to form a YMCA. Thanks to strong leadership and the support of the community, the Westfield Area YMCA we know has grown to provide a wide variety of programs and services that reflect and anticipate the ever-changing needs of the community.
The first effort began in 1868, when a group of Christian laymen established a YMCA to promote the growth of men under age 40 who were “of good standing of an Evangelical church.” A second attempt began in the 1890s, when a local Y with a recreation center was established for teenage boys in what was known as the Old Gale clubhouse on Elm Street. It was soon disbanded because the building was not sturdy enough to support athletic activity and funds were not available for renovation.
The Westfield Area YMCA Begins
The third time was the charm. Descendants of the past Y directors assembled in the early 1920s with a plan to “discourage Westfield boys from hanging out on street corners by providing them with a place for constructive activities.”
In 1923, a Board of Directors and a Board of Trustees were established to oversee development of the present organization marking the formal beginning of today’s Westfield Area YMCA. An annual budget of $5,225 was approved and the Association’s Finance Committee organized a fundraising campaign. In November 1924, the Board of Directors authorized the purchase of the Trevenen property, formerly the Clark Homestead. The land was acquired for $18,000, contributed by members of the Board and other supporters.
A memorable ten-day Building Campaign was held in 1927, during which daily fundraiser tallies were recorded on a 60-foot scoreboard, positioned on the south side of the railroad tracks, to be seen by commuters. The drive netted a total of $304,512! The groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1927 and the cornerstone was laid in 1928. The building opened in 1929 and served 325 members in its first year. The building contained social rooms, a gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, bowling alleys, locker and shower rooms, assembly rooms and a kitchen. There were also 36 dormitory rooms. In 1930, the Board of Directors approved the creation of a provisional Young Women’s Christian Association in Westfield for women and girls.
The Great Depression and World War II
The onset of the Great Depression, just one year after the Y’s auspicious beginning, seriously threatened the future of the facility. Membership renewals and contributions declined, single room occupancy dormitory rooms were vacant, operating deficits piled up, and fundraising efforts failed. The Directors considered closing the building but determined it would be an “irreparable loss” to the community. They kept it open and ultimately the Y rebounded.
Years later, World War II provided another challenge, as many members and workers were called into service. School teachers and salesmen helped staff the Y and keep it open. The Y also raised funds for the war effort, and the building served as a casualty station.
The 1950s -1970s
In the 1950s, the Westfield Area YMCA boasted 381 clubs, classes, committees, councils, boards and additional groups. The post war boom continued, as the Y mirrored the same remarkable growth in programs and community service that many Y’s achieved nationally.
Day camps were introduced in the 1950s, and in 1955, a group of Westfield Y teens traveled to France to the world’s conference of YMCAs in Paris.
At the time, the Main Facility featured a youth canteen and sponsored social events for young people, while maintaining the Westfield Old Guard for active retired men. It also offered specialized workshops, such as one developed in cooperation with the Plainfield Y, emphasizing the importance of supervisor competence and human relations in the industrial workplace.
The Wallace Pool opened in 1960. In 1965, the gymnasium was dedicated by Bill Bradley, former Princeton University and Knicks basketball star who later became a United States Senator. In 1968, the Y took swimming on the road with the Westfield “Y” Swimmobile making rounds at local playgrounds. The 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1973 and the first woman joined the Board of Directors in 1975.
The 1980s and 1990s
Westfield Area YMCA childcare programs began and grew during this time. The Y opened its first preschool class in 1982, after school programs began in 1983, and the first full-day childcare class started in 1987 with 16 children. In 1991, the Westfield Area YMCA entered into an agreement with the First Baptist Church and renovations were made to the facility now known as the Early Learning Center YMCA to grow the program and add infant/toddler care.
Consolidation with the YWCA in 1985 made the Clark Street facility equally used by men, women and children. Single room occupancy facilities, available since 1929, were phased out by the early 1990s with a fitness studio, the Weldon Room, opening in that space in 1993.
In 2003, the Flyers Track Club launched joining the well-established Devilfish swim team as opportunities for developmental and competitive sports.
The Robert and Virginia Bauer Family Branch YMCA opened in 2005 in the former Christian Science Church. This facility includes preschool classrooms, a multi-purpose room, conservatory and lounge for programs. A childcare location first opened in Garwood in 2009 and programs were held at the Cranford Community Center.
7th grade was seen as a pivotal time in which teens start setting future social, health and wellness habits and behaviors. The Westfield Area YMCA began offering the popular 7th Grade 2011 marked the first year of the “Delay the Disease” exercise program, which addresses symptoms and issues associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Camp and school age childcare programs launched in Mountainside schools in 2011. Camp offerings continued to expand offering traditional, sports, STEAM, and leadership camps for ages 3-15. The Garwood Family Center YMCA opened in 2012 at a former elementary school to provide full day and half day childcare, school age childcare and summer day camp.
In 2014, the Westfield Area Y commemorated completion of the first phase of a multi-year capital improvement project focused on ADA-accessibility and infrastructure enhancements at the Main Y. This included a new entry ramp, a new elevator, relocation and renovation of the Fitness Express Center, new restrooms and modernized classrooms. By 2019, new racquetball courts and the Glasser Foundation Lounge opened, and renovations to the Strength Training Room, Cardio Room and Free Weight Room were completed.
The Westfield Area YMCA has maintained a number of international partners through the years. In 2017, the newest YMCA in the world, YMCA of the Cayman Islands, became an international partner. The Y also continues to support the Phayao Center of the Bangkok YMCA. Past partnerships include the Sunrise YMCA of Russia and Brasilia YMCA of Brazil.
The Y began offering Pickleball, ahead of the curve of the sport’s increasing popularity in 2018. The Achievers program, which serves diverse high school students in Union County, celebrated its 20th anniversary the same year.
2020 – Today
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the world, and close to home. The Y was forced to shut its doors on March 16, 2020 and was not permitted to reopen for three months. Over the next year, the Y slowly brought back programs and memberships while adhering to CDC, state and local health and safety regulations and guidelines. The Y pivoted to offer remote, hybrid and virtual options for everything from childcare to fitness classes.
The Main Y Lobby renovation was completed in 2021. Construction of the new Family Locker Rooms will be completed in 2023 and will serve families and those with special needs.
In 2022, Pioneer camp began in Cranford. The partnership with the Township of Cranford expands in 2023 with plans for the YMCA to renovate and expand services by running the indoor pool & wellness center, a new multipurpose space and multiple programs including swim lessons. A new Cranford Kindergarten Wraparound program is launching in September 2023 at the Walnut Avenue Community Center.
Through the years, the Westfield Area YMCA has evolved to meet the needs of each new generation. Financial assistance is available to those who live or work in Westfield, Cranford, Garwood or Mountainside and are experiencing a bona fide financial hardship, ensuring that no one is turned away due to an inability to pay for Y programs and memberships. Programs continue to cultivate honesty and respect as they emphasize the importance of responsibility and caring for entire families. The Westfield Area YMCA enhances the quality of life in the community through comprehensive facilities and offerings for youth, teens, adults, families and seniors including childcare, aquatics, wellness, sports, and social and recreational programs. Congratulations to the Westfield Area YMCA on its first 100 years of impact strengthening the foundations of our community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF OUR COMMUNITY
Strengthening community is the YMCA’s cause, believing that everyone regardless of age, income or background should have the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. Yesterday, today and every day, the Y strives to make a positive impact on individuals, families and communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility:
Today’s youth make tomorrow’s leaders. The Y believes in nurturing the potential of every child and teen. Here is Paolina Marano’s story:
Paolina Marano started at the Westfield Area YMCA as a young camper and returned for many years, eventually participating in the Counselors-in-Training camp program. Inspired by the bonds that she created with her counselors and mentors at the Y, she became a counselor when she was 16. Paulina says that she learned and experienced what it takes to be a role model and make a difference in the camper’s lives. This year, Paolina will serve as the Blue Sky Camp Director for the second summer.
Through the camp program, Paolina was given the opportunity to show initiative and express creativity while developing strong interpersonal and communication skills. It helped her discover her true potential and passion for helping others, so much so that she is currently pursuing her master’s degree to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
Health and well-being are about spirit, mind and body. The Y is a place where people of all ages and varied interests and skill levels can build confidence and foster connections. Here is Jean White’s story:
Jean White says she started exercising “by mistake” more than 43 years ago. But it turned out to be the best move she ever made as it has led to a fulfilling “23 years and counting” career at the Westfield Area YMCA teaching fitness classes, building personal relationships, and helping transform lives while keeping herself and others mentally and physically fit over the long term.
“The key to the Y’s success is welcoming others, connecting with them, making them feel comfortable and having fun! That’s what I try to do and that’s the difference between what you get here and somewhere else,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what size, shape or age you are when you come here. You are accepted, and you will feel you are part of something – part of the Y family.”
When a new student comes through the door, Jean says she stops whatever she is doing, welcomes them, and makes them feel like they belong. She notes that a positive experience on the first day is a critical first step in motivating students to stay on their fitness journey.
Jean also says that achieving a healthy lifestyle isn’t a one-day, one-month or even a one-year goal and advises students of every age and ability to take a long-term view. “You get out of it what you put into it,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how old you are since we are all getting older! So being healthy is a commitment to yourself.”
Jean notes that the key to her success and endurance has been that she absolutely loves what she does, has fun doing it, and just as importantly —finds it challenging. “I get just as much out of teaching classes as my students do taking them. When I walk out of the Y, I express my gratitude and I thank God for putting me in a position where I can help others and make a difference. All of this to me is what healthy living is about.”
With the doors open to all, Y members, volunteers, supporters and staff demonstrate the power of what we can achieve by working together. The Westfield Area YMCA is proud to serve the needs of all members of the community. Thanks to the Strong Kids+ Annual Support Campaign, financial assistance is available for individuals and families with a bona fide financial hardship that live or work in Westfield, Cranford, Garwood or Mountainside. The majority of scholarships awards enable children to attend the Y’s early learning, school age and summer camp programs.
Here is Mira Nirula’s story:
Mira Nirula is a Westfield Area YMCA member and former student of the Early Learning Center YMCA. Influenced by the impact that the Westfield Area YMCA has had on her, Mira, now age 12, has been inspired to give back to the community by making bracelets and donating the proceeds to charities.
Earlier this year, in recognition of the Westfield Area YMCA’s 100 year-anniversary, Mira made 100 bracelets by hand and sold them to members passing through the Main Y Welcome Center. In just a few hours, Mira raised $550 and donated all of it to the Strong Kids+ Campaign which enables kids, families and seniors in need of financial assistance to participate in YMCA programs and memberships.
Describing that her favorite part of the process was the act of donating the money, Mira said, “I like to imagine how many people I might be helping and what the money will do or who it will benefit.”