The McGaw YMCA is a cornerstone of the Evanston community, but few may know of the depth and breadth of programs and services they offer as a nonprofit organization. From child care and summer camp, to an exercise facility and residence for men — the McGaw YMCA strives to meet the needs of the community as they arise.
Founded in 1885 to “promote mental, moral, physical, and social welfare,” the McGaw YMCA remains true to the spirit of that mission today, although they have expanded to serve everyone in Evanston’s diverse community. The McGaw YMCA is an open, charitable membership association that promotes growth in spirit, mind, and body through programs and services for all.
“The McGaw Y is the only nonprofit organization that touches all aspects of the Evanston community with complete access and equity,” says Monique Parsons, interim CEO and president of McGaw YMCA. “Our goal is to positively impact the community. Everything we provide is intentional and focused — healthy living, youth development, and social responsibility — those are our buckets, our lenses. We ask ourselves daily: How do we make sure we’re including everyone? McGaw is where different communities collide. We break down barriers. It’s what makes us unique.”
Many of McGaw YMCA’s program administrators found their way to the Y because they were looking for a mission-based organization where they could see their direct impact strengthening the community. In the wake of McGaw YMCA’s annual gala on Jan. 20, where Rose and Bob Johnson and Catherine and Bart Rocca were recognized for their long-standing commitment to enhancing the McGaw YMCA and the entire Evanston community, Make It Better was fortunate to talk to a diverse group of McGaw’s leadership team in order to paint a picture of all the YMCA offers.
Early Childhood Education/School-Age Programs
McGaw YMCA believes the values and skills learned early in life are essential for future success. That’s why their infant/toddler, preschool, and school-age programs are staffed with teachers who understand the cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development of children. They respect and nurture each child’s need to feel connected and supported in trying new things. At their center, babies develop trust and security, preschoolers experience early literacy and learn about their environment, and school-age kids make friends, learn new skills, and receive homework assistance.
“We provide the highest quality programs outside of the school day,” says Nicole Woodard, branch executive director for the children’s center. “What we do here is critical to families thriving. We provide a safe place to learn with really great people.”
Sue Sowle, senior director for youth enrichment, has worked with McGaw for 18 years. One of the programs she’s most excited about is MetaMedia, a free digital media center and maker lab designed for middle-school youth. MetaMedia, unveiled three years ago when the YMCA received a $1 million grant for the project, increases access to technology and skilled mentors, allows the exploration of passions and projects, and empowers youth in a safe community atmosphere.
“Before we could open the doors to MetaMedia, we had to have the right staff,” says Sowle. “The people we hired were more important than all of the bells and whistles of the center. The staff is young, energetic, and have real chops for STEAM. We now have the premier maker space in Evanston where anyone is welcome to come.”
Throughout the year, McGaw provides programs to meet the interests of all middle-school youth. “We’re pushing our students from being consumers to being producers,” says Sarita Smith, senior director for youth enrichment and engagement. “We have STEAM learning with intentional mentors. Metamedia is the place to be. We have seen first hand that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ And the kids are staying for the relationships they’ve made when they’re here.”
“Camp Echo is a magical space for young people,” says Bernard Rocca, branch executive director for the flourishing summer program — Camp Echo. “We can adapt what we offer very quickly to meet our campers where they are, while staying true to our goals of achievement, relationships, and belonging.”
Camp Echo is a coed, residential YMCA camp on Long Ryerson Lake near Fremont, Michigan, sitting on more than 500 acres of woodlands and wetlands. Each summer, more than 1,500 campers from 3rd graders through high school, from Evanston and surrounding Chicago suburbs get the Echo experience, some for the first time, some returning as families with children of their own, and everything in between.
Echo campers learn leadership skills as they have fun and stay safe, returning year after year to participate in swimming, sports, and active outdoor activities. Many campers extend their years with the camp by returning as counselors.
Camp Echo recently received a $1 million grant from the Davee Foundation. This grant will establish an endowment named the “Ken M. Davee Scholarship Fund,” which will allow Camp Echo to expand its effort to make camp accessible to all Evanston youth, regardless of their ability to pay.
“Camp Echo is a transformative experience that leads to having a greater sense of community for whatever the campers embark upon next,” Rocca adds.
The McGaw YMCA residence for men is situated in their historic building in the heart of Evanston. They offer convenience, security, and comfort at a price men can afford. Residents find a sense of community, whether it be in the Chinnock Lounge, working out with a friend in the state-of-the-art athletic facility, or with the YMCA’s professional staff.
“It’s humbling to have a part in helping the men who live here,” says Inez Thomas, the men’s residence coordinator. “We are the largest provider of accessible housing for gentlemen in Evanston.” Today, there are 172 room that are consistently at capacity.
The McGaw YMCA is just two blocks from the CTA Purple Line, the Metra North Line, and Pace and CTA buses in the heart of Evanston, in a charming residential neighborhood on a beautiful tree-lined street. At the YMCA, residents are only steps away from all the conveniences and attractions of downtown Evanston.
In addition to having a place to stay, McGaw also offers programming around financial planning or career counseling for those interested in participating. “We often say that instead of living above the doughnut shop, these men chose to live above the gym. We’re so happy to have them here.”
Health and Wellness
At the McGaw YMCA’s core is its commitment to health and wellness. “Our state-of-the-art fitness center is the one place where the entire community can come together,” says Mira Rodgers, senior director for member relations and healthy living. “Our programming offers so much depth in who we serve and how much we value family and inclusion.”
McGaw currently has between 12,000-13,000 members, with 1,200-1,500 scanned member visits each day. While offering an extensive list of health and fitness programs for children and adults, they also provide a sliding fee schedule for memberships so that anyone who wants to join can. Additionally, the McGaw recognizes that not all “family” structures are the same.
“Some families include their grandparents as part of their household, or perhaps they have an au pair,” adds Rodgers. “We want to make sure that what we’re offering matches with what our members are requiring.”
One of McGaw’s biggest splashes is its aquatic programs. For example, Evanston Swims ensures that every second grader has the opportunity to learn water safety.
“I can’t say enough what the day-to-day interaction with our membership means to me,” says Rodgers. “We are a mission-based company and we are living that mission every day.”
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Ann Marie Scheidler is a contributing writer with Make It Better who has made a career writing about people, their favorite places, and the things they value most. Ann Marie, a pearl-loving yogi who has a thing for travel, lives in Lake Forest with her husband and five children.