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Youth Organizations

Young Men's Christian Association

The Young Men's Christian Association, often called the YMCA or simply the Y, is an international membership organization concerned with the physical, educational, social, and religious needs of young men, women, and boys. The YMCA stresses the Christian code of conduct, ecumenism, and community responsibility, but the organization is open to people of all religious faiths.


>The major programs of the YMCA are conducted through classes and club activities. Program offerings vary from city to city, depending on local needs. Most YMCAs offer a variety of programs addressing adult education (including technical and vocational courses), athletics (especially swimming), health and fitness, child care, community development, arts and humanities, family support, and teen leadership. Club activities for children and teenagers include Hi-Y, Youth and Government, Model United Nations, Black Achievers and Minority Achievers, and the Earth Service Corps. These groups emphasize the development of individual initiatives and leadership qualities. In YMCA urban action efforts throughout the United States, members have undertaken projects for the needy. As one of the six founding organizations of the United Service Organizations (USO), the YMCA also provides welfare, recreational, and religious programs for members of the American armed forces.

YMCA buildings have gymnasiums, swimming pools, and rooms for classes and club activities; many YMCAs also have residence facilities. In addition, the YMCA operates summer-camp and day-camp programs and facilities around the country.


Each local YMCA is an autonomous corporation with its own board of directors and staff and is responsible to its community and the distinctive needs of the people who live there. Each YMCA is also a part of the national organization as a member-affiliate of the National Council of YMCAs, the legislative and policymaking national body. The National Council in turn is a member of the World Alliance, the YMCA international body.


Membership in the YMCA is open to all men, women, and children, regardless of religious affiliation, race, age, ability, or income. In 2000 approximately 970 corporate YMCAs operated almost 1,500 branches, units, and camps in the United States; the organization served over 17 million Americans, making the YMCA one of the country's largest notfor-profit community-service organizations. Financial support for local associations is derived from program fees, membership dues, community chests, foundation grants, charitable contributions, sustaining memberships, and corporate sponsors. YMCAs have also been established in more than 120 countries around the world, providing service to over 30 million people.


The YMCA was founded in 1844 in London by George Williams, a clerk in a dry-goods firm. The first meeting room was located in a coffeehouse. The American YMCA was established in 1851 in Boston by Thomas V. Sullivan, a retired sea captain. The following year YMCAs were formed in New York City and Buffalo, New York; Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts; Portsmouth and Concord, New Hampshire; New London and Hartford, Connecticut; Detroit, Michigan; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and New Orleans, Louisiana. By 1860 there were more than 200 YMCAs with more than 25,000 members in the United States.

Most early YMCAs were open only to men, although a few accepted women members, often unofficially. Some YMCAs were established to serve particular ethnic or immigrant groups. The first YMCA for African Americans was established in Washington, D.C., in 1853 by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave. Beginning in 1875, YMCAs were founded in San Francisco, California, to serve the city's large Chinese population. Thomas Wakeman, a Dakota Sioux, started the first YMCA for Native Americans in 1879 in Flandreau, South Dakota.

Early YMCA leaders were concerned with addressing the difficulties and temptations facing young men arriving in the cities, far from the stabilizing influence of home and family, during the American Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. In the United States revival meetings were the outstanding programs offered, and the associations sent out the first street workers to preach on street corners and around the wharves. They also sent out "gospel wagons" to distribute Christian tracts and Bibles and give sermons in city neighborhoods.

Delegates from fifteen associations met in New York City in 1861 and formed the United States Christian Commission, the first volunteer agency for spiritual and physical aid to American armed forces. During World War I the American YMCA provided religious services, recreational materials, entertainment programs, and canteens in home ports, on the front lines, and in cities overseas.

During World War II, the YMCA, as part of its United Service Organization affiliation, worked with the armed services throughout the world. In the postwar years the international associations undertook service to displaced persons by providing athletics programs, summer schools, entertainment, and children's camps. The YMCA also helped with the repatriation and resettlement of refugees from Europe.

By the end of the war most YMCAs were accepting women and girls as members and had began establishing centers in suburbs and outside of major urban areas. During the 1960s and 1970s, urban unrest in America and a lack of funding caused a decline in YMCA membership and many YMCAs reduced program offerings or closed entirely. The organization managed to rebuild in the 1980s and 1990s by seeking new sources of funding, by renovating many older YMCA buildings and constructing new ones, and by changing its focus to include intensive community outreach, job training, drug abuse prevention, mentoring programs, youth development and leadership training, family support and services, and aid for senior citizens. In 2001 the YMCA celebrated its first 150 years in America.


HINDING, ANDREA. 1988. Proud Heritage: A History in Pictures of the YMCA in the United States. Chicago: National Council of the YMCA of the USA.

MACLEOD, DAVID I. 1983. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

MJAGKIJ, NINA. 1994. Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852–1946. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

MJAGKIJ, NINA, and SPRATT, MARGARET, eds. 1997. Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City. New York: New York University Press.




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