The YMCA (Advanced)

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In today’s episode, Steve talks to Bill Stewart who is the President of the YMCA in Vancouver. Find out what types of activities the “Y” is involved in. This is an advanced English podcast.

This morning I’m meeting with Bill Stewart who is the President of the YMCA here in Vancouver.

Very nice of you to spend the time to chat with us.

Always a pleasure.

Now, some people are very familiar with the Y, because it is a world-wide organization, but some newcomers to Vancouver may not know what sorts of activities the Y is involved in. Perhaps you could explain some of these.

Sure I’d be happy to. First of all, I guess, I’d talk a little bit about the Y on a worldwide basis.

The Y is in about 130 some countries in the world and it is the largest volunteer membership organization in the world. Its office of the world alliance is in Geneva, Switzerland. Every Y, though, is a very independent organization governed by volunteers at a board of directors level who hire someone like me to be the administrator. So that’s basically how structurally we are organized.

One question, and I’m going to jump in here from time to time, of course YMCA does mean Young Men’s Christian Association. Now are the services or is membership in any way limited by religion?

No, not in Canada and in most countries in the world it wouldn’t be limited to religion.

But I would say that for people coming from other parts of the world they might find that the Y is aimed more at the Christian population rather than indigenous population of that country. Those would be the cases where the Christian population would be the very minority, so one percent or two percent. So, for instance, if you take the YMCA in Malaysia, which is in a Muslim secular country, the Y is the minority and although it serves everyone in terms of religion it can only have members that are Christian.

What’s the situation here in Vancouver?

In Vancouver basically we embrace all religions of the world. We don’t make any demands on people of their religion.

All we ask people to do is believe in our core values, and operate by our guiding principles which are basically the same foundations as every major religion in the world.

So you have members who are Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, atheist, whatever.

Absolutely.

And one of your main projects recently has been the new Y in Surrey, I believe.

Yes, we have been working on the Y in Surrey for about 6 years now. We are in construction at the present time. We expect to be able to open about mid-September. It’s the first YMCA that has been built in British Columbia in the last 23 years.

From the point of view of someone who has, say, recently immigrated to Canada, what can the Y mean to a family or an individual who has come here, and doesn’t know many people, and is interested to get to know people in this society?

Well, that’s a good question. I think that one of the first things that you have to say about a Y is that a Y is a lifetime experience. So what we would ideally like and we have, are people that join as children, and are still with us when they are grandfathers and grandmothers. In fact, we have one woman that’s over at our South Slope YMCA by Langara and 49th that is ninety-some years old and she continues to swim twice a week and compete in swim races across the province.

And each time she does, of course she wins because there’s no one in her age category!

How old is she again?

She is ninety-two or ninety-three years old! And we have little kids that start in Y’s in our day camps and our camp programs and our membership programs. I think the services that we really offer are that people are able to participate with other people, with similar interests in terms of healthy lifestyles, getting involved in various things we do, and can do that as a family or an individual and can do it over a lifetime.

Typically one thinks of the Y as a place to work out in a gym, or swim or play basketball. Is it just that kind of thing or what are some of the other aspects?

Well, we do a lot of that for sure. But we in fact teach English language, we engage in programs that are international development kind of things in terms of partnerships with other Y’s around the world. We do programs that are designed for employment. One project that we run right now is called YIP which is a youth internship program that is for kids primarily that have dropped out of school and their stories are quite dramatic. We deal with kids right across the province and up into the Yukon. The design is that we help teach them a little bit about what is expected of them when they get a job with an employer. So there’s kind of an attitude-shaping going on for 3 weeks to 4 weeks. And then basically we place them with the Civil Service.

It’s a combination program or a funded program with the federal government Civil Service and they in fact find mentors (we collectively find them mentors) and then they are matched up with a mentor and are able to work with the mentor for an average 8 months to 9 months. For many of these young people it’s the very first time that they have been able to get a little bit of a toe-hold on what employment is all about. And it’s a great thing for the mentors because it’s the very first time in many cases they’ve had to take on the role of a coach and as a bit of a guidance person, role model to young people.

And what we have found is that there has been some tremendous success stories come out of this where kids are then up for actual employment and receive employment offers in the federal service.

That’s certainly an interesting program. I also understand that you provide daycare?

We provide daycare. We are the largest provider of childcare in the province of British Columbia with about 43 centres throughout the Lower Mainland. And they run a range from full-time, under 5 care for children, to out of school care, before school, noon hour care and after school care. And we have some special programs that are also operating in relationship to young women that are finishing school as they’ve been giving birth, so their children are in childcare and they’re finishing up high school. So we’ve got a couple of programs like that, as well.

And do you also run summer camps for children?

We are the largest provider of children’s summer camp programs. We’ve got 3 centres, one is about 94 years old and that is Camp Elphinstone, well known in this part of the world, and actually around the world because about 25 percent of the people that come to that camp are from all over the world. And we have Camp Howdy, which is a little over 50 years old, and we have Camp Deca, which is up in the Caribou country about 6 or 7 hours from here.

So that would be a good opportunity for children who live in Vancouver, and sometimes people who, particularly in the case of recent immigrants, don’t know much about the province they haven’t been out to see much of B.C.,so one could recommend that kids from that background should take advantage and get out and see the rest of the province?

It’s an excellent thing from a couple of points of view; one is just to make a connections with other children, other youth. It’s a great spot to learn about Canadian society and group living. And it’s a great thing in the sense that you can go as a camper and eventually become a leader and from a leader you can become a paid counsellor. So there is quite a range of experiences that people can engage in.

The other great thing is that there are people there from all over the world and even from the lower mainland from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds, so it’s very a mixed affair. That would be one of the important things that we try to do in our English language for instance. We tend to try to have people with a variety of backgrounds as opposed to singular backgrounds.

Do you find, I know in some schools in the Lower Mainland, it can be a problem if there are a lot of students from one particular language group that they will collect together and speak their language? It really doesn’t help them with their English in the long run. What’s been the experience at these camps, do people mix better?

Do people all tend to mix across different language groups or do you still get these little cliques forming?

No, by and large, they would mix. We would have multi-language skills in relationship to the counsellors that are on site. But the language of the camp is English and basically the people that come from around the world to engage in our camp also come to learn English as a part of that experience. That’s our intention. I guess the other thing I should mention is that we have members from all over the world in terms of their origins in our membership, and again the language of the membership is English. Although we do try to have the capability as much as we can, that some of our instructors and service staff have multi-language capabilities.

I’ve often thought it would be an interesting project to have, almost like, an English Language Camp. Again, for people that are struggling with English here in Vancouver, where we would take them out of Vancouver to some of the regional centres in British Columbia for a period of time where they would get to experience what life is like elsewhere. I guess there’s no such activity on right now?

None that I’m aware of. That would be an interesting idea. Some Y’s do sponsor family camps. We have not been able to do those particular camps because our camps are pretty full as they are. We would struggle a little bit to find the space. But yes, there are those kinds of programs, I know, elsewhere and I think they’d probably be very valuable.

In what way do the facilities and services offered by the Y differ from, let’s say, what a community centre offers?

Well, I think in some respects there is a difference in the sense that we’re a volunteer organization, that is volunteer driven. While the community centres can have volunteers, our volunteers are based upon the structure of the organization. We start there; that’s our fundamental belief that volunteers and staff form the partnerships that deliver services. So that’s one difference. The other difference is around the whole area of belonging. Membership; do you belong to something with basically a value-base that we invite people to participate in. So that’s a difference. Again, we are not publicly-funded, we have to make it on our own.

So we ask people to participate with us in a philanthropic way too. We attempt to make sure that no one is ever turned away or denied a YMCA experience for a lack of funds. So people, for instance, that have come to our country that are new immigrants, if they wish to belong to the Y but don’t have the funds for them or their family, the Y will provide scholarships or ways in which they can in fact engage in those membership programs.

Do you have people from the different ethnic communities volunteering at the Y?

Oh yes.

What would be some of the activities that the volunteers would do at the Y?

Well in terms of range of activities, we’ve got people that volunteer to do conversation clubs in English language.

We’ve got people that volunteer to do T-ball, sports programs, basketball. We’ve got people that do karate, counselling, training programs. Quite a variety of coaches.

You do run slo-pitch softball and that kind of thing as well?

Yes, we do, very large programs.

I’ve always felt that a great place for particularly a younger adult immigrant to get to know Canadians is to participate in slo-pitch because it’s really not that difficult to play, and it’s not very competitive and it’s just a great social event!

A great social time! Yes. We do. We operate that particular program for adults out of our South Slope Y. For children we do that mainly in Surrey and Langley.

You keep coming back to the values of the Y. I wonder if you could maybe expand a little bit on some of the core values of the Y?

First of all, the Y has been around in Canada for over 150 years now. It’s been in our city here for about 115 years. It’s been based upon some core values of responsibility, respect, honesty and caring. Those are the kinds of core values that we espouse, and which we try to build into our programs. And when you start there as your framework and then ask yourself the question, how are we making sure that those particular values are in our programs, you start to re-define how you deliver things and what action you might take in response to given situations. So those have been our guiding posts.

And from an organizational basis we have always believed in belonging as a very important thing that people have to have opportunities to belong to something, to believe in something. We believe in leadership, taking leadership, providing leadership opportunities, so the development of leadership skills is a big thing for us. Whether it’s campers in training or counsellors in training, or leaders in training, or whether you’re a volunteer that’s just receiving some training in terms of being able to apply your particular expertise to someone else or with someone else. Those would be important things for us. We are also an organization that believes in serving. There’s a service ethic in our mentality; to serve people. It’s not just from a customer service point of view, but from a service point of view. The other one would be renewal.

We are always an organization that has to be involved in renewing itself. From a business point of view, if you wanted to look at it in business terms, we are a very large social-marketing organization because if the market or need is not apparent in the community and we’re trying to serve something that doesn’t exist, we won’t be there very long. Because we have to be defined by the needs and then if you do that over time you can take a look at all of the things that the Y has created. It’s an amazing story of firsts. We have created more things than any other organization probably in the world because of that defining.

Most people don’t know that basketball was started in YMCA schools, volleyball was started in YMCA schools, modern weightlifting was started in YMCA schools, table tennis was brought to China by YMCA’s. There’s an incredible list of stories.

Very interesting, and I think when you talk about belonging it brings up the word community in my mind and I think it’s also about community-building, bringing people together.

That’s right. We have a very strong belief that people should engage in building community themselves. Everybody’s got a responsibility to take some leadership, to get involved and that we should do for ourselves. Community is not built by other people providing services, community is built by people getting involved to deliver services.

I think that’s an excellent model of a community: people building it themselves rather than waiting for someone to give it to them. And I think that’s a good note to end our discussion on, so thank you very much.

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